Happy Birthday America!! Normally this is a festive time, not only the nation’s birthday celebration but also the enjoyment that goes with the true beginning of summer on the waterfront. However, these times are not the same. A decision was made this week to close all of the beaches in Ventura County for the Fourth of July weekend. I agree with the decision, but who would have ever thought that we would not have beaches for the July Fourth holiday? As we look back to 2020 from the future, we will be recalling 2020 as THAT summer.
As I write this, the businesses and activities in the Harbor are all open and available, albeit on a limited and re-arranged basis. I will say that I am seeing a lot of people in and around the Harbor, particularly on weekends, which is heartening to see. I would caution, however, that mask use and social distancing need to be adhered to – this virus is real and the numbers are increasing. We definitely do not want to go backwards.
I want to spend some time this month on Harbor development. We get many queries about the status of the Fisherman’s Wharf proposed project. The underlying issue with regards to development in the Harbor is that there are two government agencies that have some level of control of development, one (Ventura County) which “owns” the Harbor and one (City of Oxnard) in which the Harbor resides. Both agencies have some level of control over development in the Harbor, a condition caused by the passage of the State Coastal Act in 1976, which has proven problematic in recent years.
Historically, the County has managed the development in the Harbor, and the City has either supported it, or at a minimum was neutral and allowed the County to develop as it deemed appropriate. That relationship changed in 2016, when the City used its authority to essentially stop the Fisherman’s Wharf project, at the urging of residents who do not want more apartments in the Harbor. This conflict came to a head last November, when the Oxnard City Council rejected a request to change the City’s coastal plan to allow the project to proceed. We have appealed that decision to the California Coastal Commission, an action needed more to determine who has actual development authority in the Harbor than to obtain approval for the Fisherman’s Wharf project. As I stated above, the Coastal Act created the issue, and we are hoping the State can unwind the issue through the Coastal Commission.
At that City hearing in November, most City Councilpersons indicated that the City should be involved in planning for development in the Harbor. Personally, I could not agree more. I would be remiss if I did not point out that in 2015 and 2016, my predecessor did meet with all impacted City departments, who had no problem with the Fisherman’s Wharf project at the time.
In any event, we should concentrate of the future. Last year, the Harbor Department adopted a new Planning and Development process which includes an up-front visioning exercise to meet publicly and discuss how a to-be-developed parcel should be developed. In line with that new process, we are continuing the visioning process we began late last year, including the commissioning of an experienced professional consulting team.
A number of naysayers in the Harbor have pushed back on the consultant, citing a lack of funds and the fact that it should not be done unless it is a change in the Harbor’s development plan (Public Works Plan). It is true that this consultant will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000, and it is also true that the Harbor Department is in a deficit position to the tune of nearly $1 million a year. Both the budgetary shortfall and the funds for this contract will come from Harbor reserves, but I believe we have no choice because the only path forward to financial stability is development of new revenue-generating projects, and development cannot move forward without consensus, as evidenced by the Fisherman’s Wharf project. The funds for this consultant are an excellent use of the reserve funds at this point in Harbor history.
The visioning process is moving forward, and it will provide the forum for collaboration between the County, City, business community and residents. It is exactly the right direction at this time, and the results could very well move forward to the update of the County’s Public Works Plan as well as the City’s Local Coastal Plan, both of which are needed, and both of which will take years and significant additional funding to accomplish.
Finally, there is currently considerable anger among some residents because we extended agreements to the Fisherman’s Wharf developer. In 2014, Channel Islands Harbor Properties (developer) was given exclusive options over three parcels – Fisherman’s Wharf and two other Harbor parcels. It is true that the developer was looking to build apartments on the three parcels, and even submitted proposed plans for the apartments. However, the developer was told that the County would not deal with the other two parcels until Fisherman’s Wharf was settled.
It is obvious that until Fisherman’s Wharf is settled, or a visioning process is completed to see what would be acceptable to the stakeholders in the Harbor, including the City, there is no way for the developer to realistically propose a development on the two parcels. To do it any other way would result in the same multi-year expensive battle we have experienced with Fisherman’s Wharf. As a result, we extended the options to provide time to complete the visioning, and provide direction to this developer, who has expended funds and waited patiently for six years while we determine what we want to develop in the Harbor. I know it does not make me popular among some residents, but I am firm in my belief that to do anything else would have been very unfair.
As always, live every day to the fullest.
Mark Sandoval, Harbor Director
Ventura County Harbor Department
Editor’s Note: this story was published July 2, 2020.