Special to Citizens Journal Ventura County
by Merrill Hope
Debra Tash contributed to this article
A new lawsuit accuses the Ventura County Board of Supervisors of trampling on the rights of homeowners and farmers, playing favorites, and ignoring state environmental laws and constitutional rights to enact stringent regulations in a questionable wildlife corridor ordinance.
According to the 58-page petition filed in Ventura County Superior Court, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors circumvented protocols established by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to adopt a “flawed” wildlife corridor ordinance that imposed new zoning regulations over 163,000 acres of Ventura County. This stands to significantly impact the lives and livelihoods of longstanding local farmers, homeowners, “community character,” among other potential impacts to traffic, air quality, greenhouse gases, and future land use.
The petitioners, the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (VC CoLAB), a nonprofit advocacy group which supports “sensible regulatory solutions,” and “rational local government” in the resource rich region sued county supervisors on April 25.
In March, the county’s board of supervisors voted 3-2 to adopt the final version of the ordinance named County-initiated Proposal to Amend the General Plan and Articles 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, and 18 of the Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance (PL16-0127) to Establish a Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor (HCWC) and a Critical Wildlife Passage Area (CWPA). County officials claimed the ordinance was exempt from CEQA and they allegedly “abandoned” plans to undergo a state mandated environmental review for the ordinance which “has potentially significant environmental impacts,” according to the lawsuit.
“I’ve never seen regulations affecting over 160,000 acres of land be enacted without any environmental review whatsoever,” commented attorney Ben Reznik with Jeffer Mangels Butler, & Mitchell, LLP (JMBM), in a prepared statement. JMBM represents VC CoLAB in this case.
The lawsuit also contends that the county relied on outdated studies that resulted in inaccurate boundary determinations for the overlay zones. In January, Kristeen Penrod, executive conservation director for South Coast Wildlands, whose mapping the planning staff relied on to draft the ordinance, told Citizens Journal, only two weeks of field work had been done in Ventura County, and it was largely focused on transportation routes.
“It’s a shame that the county would do something like this without conducting the proper studies to ensure that the regulations achieve their intended purpose,” added Reznik.
Court documents revealed that county supervisors allegedly removed “hundreds of thousands of acres” in the Los Padres National Forest from the then-proposed ordinance zoning after a January 31, 2019, planning commission hearing. Later, the board removed roughly 59 homeowner properties in the unincorporated Ventura County neighborhoods of Santa Rosa Valley and Oak Park, all within District 2 represented by Supervisor Linda Parks “for questionable and not evidence based reasons.” The lawsuit asserted this decision was likely influenced by “political pressure and donations of constituents in that area.” Meanwhile, adjacent residential properties “with similar attributes” mysteriously remained in the wildlife corridor overlay zone. Citizens Journal reached out to Parks but her office indicated she was not available for comment.
*Elke Brecunier, who is featured in the video, is from the Brecunier family who has been farming in the Tierra Rejada Valley since the 19th century
The supervisors also added acreage including Simi Hills “by the request of Boeing” which altered the ordinance.
“Relying on obscure exemptions to California’s environmental laws in a regulation of this magnitude is highly unusual,” said Reznik. “The regulations are going to have a serious negative impact on the ability of property owners to use their land.”
The lawsuit also alleged that an email from a county consultant working on the wildlife ordinance to a National Park Service ecologist inferred that ordinance boundaries were drawn and then the county backed into “post-hoc rationalization” for the overlay zones. Even as late as the March 12 board hearing, supervisors shuffled Tierra Rejada back into the restrictive critical habitat area although it was determined that the area, bisected by the 23 Freeway, had no evidence of mountain lions. The petition alleged that county staff hoped the consultant would be “able to help provide something staff could use as a justification after the fact.” The email also admitted the “biggest obstacle” to wildlife movement were freeways “which the county has no control over.”
In a press release issued Tuesday, VC CoLAB called out the county’s seemingly arbitrary zoning and its “refusal to study” the environmental impact of the ordinance’s restrictions to fire hazards as a “tragic oversight.” They noted that, in the past two fire seasons, 383,000 acres of wildlife habitat in the region burned in three fires, and more than 72,000 acres were within the ordinance’s “designated corridors.” VC CoLAB also pointed out at nearly 120,000 acres of the overlay zone represents 73 percent of the ordinance and are in Fire Hazard Severity Zones. VC CoLAB suggested that limiting brush clearance in these regions could exacerbate wildfires that threaten humans and wildlife. Executive Director Lynn Jensen called the county’s well-meaning but troubled ordinance “a step too far.” She noted: “We offered solutions that were rejected in a political atmosphere that sounded good for wildlife, but truly wasn’t.”
Native Americans, indigenous to the region, also voiced concerns that the wildlife corridor ordinance violated sacred and federal land protections. In January, David Daniel Diaz, a member of the Barbereno Indian tribe, told Citizens Journal that county officials did not include or consult with Native American monitors and cultural experts on an ordinance that “will allow for non-indigenous people to come in, and desecrate land, and affect our cultural heritage.”
Still, Ventura County Resource Management officials maintain the goal of the wildlife corridor ordinance is to facilitate animal migration movement and the preservation of native plants. The county insists that development patterns within unincorporated areas have hindered animal migration. Likewise, the county’s board of supervisors insist they have put forth their best intentions in this ordinance.
VC CoLAB is not the only area nonprofit to sue the county. On April 25, 2019 California Construction and Industrial Materials Association (CalCIMA), a professional organization representing the aggregate and construction materials industry, also filed a lawsuit over impacts the wildlife corridor ordinance will have on their Ventura County members. “This is precisely the scenario environmental and general planning and natural resource conservation laws were enacted to avoid,” CalCIMA President and CEO Gary Hambly stated.
Merrill Hope writes about the many cultural, social, and legislative issues that impact our lives on a state and federal level. She covered Texas comprehensively for Breitbart News from 2014-19. Previously, she inked education commentary for EAGNews and reported on comedy at The Hollywood Reporter. She is a Conejo Valley native and a UCLA graduate. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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