Los Arboles deal reached
By Jesse Phelps
Major construction is under way
on Montgomery Street and the Los Arboles luxury town homes aren't
going away. A final settlement agreement was reached last week
between the builders, the city and those who have been fighting
to stop the development.
The Citizens to Preserve the Ojai and the Environmental Coalition
of Ventura County agreed to accept $120,000 on May 29 to cease
litigation against the development, which had already won several
major rulings in court. Under the agreement the petitioning groups
forfeit appeal rights on the prior rulings.
Los Arboles developers Lance Smigel and Lois Rice both expressed
happiness at the outcome and gratitude toward those who helped
them through the process.
"Lois and I sincerely want to thank all the people who supported
the project all the way through," said Smigel. "To
have enjoyed that support feels as good as the settlement."
Rice said she believes the developers have discovered the "highest
and best use" of the land in question. "It's been a
long haul and it's been very tough. We took basically a property
that was not well developed and really took a lot of time with
the plans and talked to the city and got lots of feedback from
the citizens that we really took to heart. We changed a lot of
the project as we went along. To have to go through three years
(of litigation) has been disheartening."
Rice said that despite the concerns of the petitioners, she thinks
that the project will be a boon to the downtown community. "I
know that we're doing the right thing and the property's going
to look beautiful when it's developed. (The people on the waiting
list for apartments) are excited because they can walk. They
don't want to drive. Just go to restaurants and enjoy that beautiful
city that we're in. I think, in the end, the right thing was
done and hopefully everybody will be very proud of it when it's
The settlement money will pay for lawyers' fees and, with what's
left over, a fund will be set up to benefit projects in the community.
The settlement agreement states that money not earmarked for
attorneys should "pay for community benefits for the betterment
of downtown Ojai (e.g. assisting to fund city sidewalk projects,
community beautification projects, public art, ridepool, or other
traffic reduction education programs or other projects petitioners
believe in their discretion will serve to improve the local Ojai
No matter where the money will go, predictably, some of the petitioners
were far less excited with the settlement than the developers.
Russ Baggerly of the Environmental Coalition expressed his frustration
with the legal system.
"Let's put it simply: we lost," said Baggerly. "Environmental
lawsuits don't always win, especially in Superior Court. In fact,
a win in Superior Court is a rarity. It has to do with the unfamiliarity
of judges with all facets of all types of law. It puts them in
a difficult position."
While Baggerly confirmed that he's not at liberty to fight this
particular battle any longer, he did suggest that his group will
remain an active participant in local affairs. "Losing's
not easy. It doesn't mean we're going away," he said.
Ivor Benci-Woodward of the Citizens to preserve the Ojai said
he wasn't upset, feeling that his group had fought the good fight.
"I think we did everything that we could have done to make
the project more environmentally appropriate for the city,"
said Benci-Woodward. "If the city council and staff work
with the developers, you can't win. Clearly it was time to get
out." He mentioned again that he felt it was inappropriate
for the city change the general plan to fit the specifications
of the Los Arboles project, something city officials have consistently
denied. "You shouldn't have to change the entire city's
future for one project," said Benci-Woodward.
Because the City of Ojai was named in the suits, many hours and
dollars have been spent along the way by staff and council in
attempting to resolve matters. For his part, city manager Dan
Singer said he's glad to have the litigation behind him.
"In general, I think it's nice for the community and the
city that we can put this matter behind us and move on,"
said Singer. Referencing the money earmarked for public improvements,
he said, "It's nice that the developers were willing to
make a further contribution to the Ojai community that would
be of public benefit. Turning this into something positive would
be really nice. I'm glad to get it behind us."
The Ojai Valley News
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