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"Hillside deal delayed -
Local investors wary of project's complexity"

By Bill Lascher
Thursday, November 8, 2007

VCReporter article online

The newest proposal to build homes in the hillsides above Ventura hit its first major snag before the ambitious plan to transform the city's last major undeveloped landscape could be made public.

The partnership that this Spring made a $60 million bid for 3,800 acres of land owned for the past century by the Lloyd family put “green,” “sustainable,” and “local” at the heart of its vocabulary in an attempt to avoid past controversy connected to hillside development, but now the group has expanded its search for investors to share the costs of the project.

J.K. Mondol, the owner of Pacific Rim Realtors and one of the backers of the proposal, said escrow originally expected to close Oct. 31 had been extended to December.

Mondol partnered last Spring with James Mesa, the developer and landlord behind many recent high-profile Downtown Ventura renovations, to form Mondol Mesa Associates. Together, Mondol and Mesa made their offer for the property with the help of Santa Barbara-based real estate investment group Investec, Inc., which the Reporter first linked to the hillsides purchase six months ago (See “Ventura Hills: Going, going, gone,” News, 5/17/07).

“We are local people running the projects and trying to do the right thing for the city,” Mondol said in a Nov. 6 email. “Because of our involvement in this transaction, because of our proposed use for the property which includes massive areas of open space and trails for public use, we have gained tremendous support from the community in almost every way. The only thing we need now is more local investors.”

Weeks before the deadline was extended, Mondol hosted a group of Ventura real estate figures and others to describe his proposal and help generate interest in the project. In a cordial three hour talk, Mondol described a project that could include a system of hiking trails, green building practices, equestrian land, professional homes, a botanic garden, an ampitheater, a dude ranch and a park at surrounding Two Trees.

But complicated language in the proposal has proven too much for investors to stomach.

“We were offering high returns on our projects, sharing in profit, giving our investors first right to refuse property, and all kinds of other great incentives, but the project just seemed too large and confusing for the investors,” Mondol said.

Mondol said that the deal was altered to make smaller, more tangible deals and that now he and his partners are close to securing enough money to close the purchase.

“I am sure most would agree that it is by far one of the more important transactions to occur in our city,” Mondol said. “It is a transaction that can give our city something very positive that will benefit future generations. It has also come along at an opportune time for people in Ventura to invest in themselves, to better their own personal economy, the city's economy and structure.”

The development would include a number of pieces designed to avoid conflicts generated by a vote under Ventura County's Save Open-Space & Agricultural Resources (SOAR) law. Those rules govern how open space in county land can be converted for real-estate development.

A 215-acre site that is part of the proposed purchase, as well as a 70-acre plot already owned by Mondol, are already within Ventura city limits. Voter approval is not needed to build on that land, and Mondol Mesa Associates originally said it would work to use sustainable methods to build homes and avoid obscuring views of the hills from Ventura. It is unclear how the delays may have changed the proposal.

The remaining land is located in unincorporated portions of the county. It would be divided into 160-acre “ranchettes” that would meet SOAR guidelines and not require voter approval. A portion of that land would then be donated to the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy, a group that seeks to acquire hillside land to preserve natural habits and build an extensive trail system on land that has long been illegal for hikers to enter.

The conservancy has not signed any deal regarding the hills, but in an Oct. 24 interview Executive Director Barbara Harison said the group has discussed the group's mission with Mondol Mesa and other landowners.

“We're not really in a position to support any specific development proposal,” Harison said. “We have not endorsed or agreed with anything. We've had many conversations and they've been all over the place.”

Meanwhile, another organization, Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation has been paying close attention to the land's future, but will not take a position on any proposal until escrow is closed on a sale.

“Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation continue to be committed to 100 percent preservation of Ventura's hills and have broad community support for our mission,” said Diane Underhill, the organization's president. “VCHP is very active and is poised to advocate for hillside preservation.”

Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
Ventura, CA 93003

(805) 665-3820

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