Santa Paula agribusiness Limoneira Co. is addressing Ventura County’s housing shortage with a huge project – one that could add 1,500 residential units to the market. The citrus grower, best known for producing lemons, has partnered with Inland Empire home builder Lewis Group of Cos. on the project named Harvest at Limoneira. They plan to have first move-ins next year and completion by 2027. Phase one – with 632 residential units – broke ground in November. It will include single-family homes, condominiums, 100 public benefit housing units for community backbone residents (firefighters, police, hospital staff, school faculty, city and county employees) and 100 assisted-living units for seniors. The planned community will also include retail and commercial buildings, parks and an elementary school. “We’re optimistic that the sales will be strong,” said Lewis Group’s Executive Vice President Randall W. Lewis, “partially because of the scarcity of the inventory but also because of the quality of the housing.” It could be one of the largest such housing developments ever built in Ventura County, Lewis said, although a few past projects have been larger. Limoneira reportedly has invested $60 million. The joint venture also will spend about $225 million in roads, sewers, utilities and the like. Built on Limoneira-owned land, Harvest is a development that, at first glance, is exactly what Ventura County voters didn’t want when they passed SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources), a series of initiatives requiring a general vote before agricultural land or open space can be rezoned for development. “Advocates for SOAR are very adamant it’s not a no-growth policy,” said Matthew Fienup, executive director of California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting. “The meat of SOAR is that it requires voter approval of urban expansion.” While Fienup cautioned that it is his policy not to comment on specific developers or projects, he allowed that Limoneira’s Harvest appears to be “completely within the scope because this was voter approved. It met the SOAR test.” Land expertise Founded in 1893 and based in Santa Paula ever since, Limoneira would seem an odd joint venture partner for suburban development. Actually, Limoneira has several multifamily properties in Santa Maria and last year generated about $4.5 million after transaction costs on sales of commercial property. The company manages about 11,000 acres in California and Arizona and the country of Chile. In late 2015, Limoneira joined forces with Lewis, accelerating the Harvest project. Harvest finally broke ground Nov. 8 at Hallock Drive, where Limoneira will soon occupy space. “Our leadership team is excited about our growing agribusiness prospects and equally excited to see our real estate venture, Harvest at Limoneira, come to fruition after more than a decade of patient development efforts,” said Limoneira Chief Executive Harold Edwards in the company’s annual report. While the presumption may appear that the project was named “Harvest” because of Limoneira’s fruit business, “Harvest” is actually Lewis’ long-running branding. “It was a really good confluence of a marketing idea that we already have,” Lewis said. Lewis’ first Harvest community, in Rancho Cucamonga, debuted 600 homes in 2008. A recent Harvest community added 300-plus homes in Chino; and another 318 homes just went online at Harvest in Upland, where Lewis Group is based. In Santa Paula, Lewis feels his company and Limoneira have a good mix of corporate philosophies. “The partner is more important than any deal,” he said. “They’re just quality people, they’re honest people. We saw there were a lot of similarities in their culture and our culture in their company.” Part and parcel with the brand, according to Lewis, is an emphasis on healthy lifestyle and related educational programs and activities for Harvest residents. Santa Paula’s Harvest will encourage edible landscaping, community gardens, dining and barbecuing, nature and exercise. “We’re very purposeful in our development how can we create better lives for the people living in our communities,” Lewis said. “(With Limoneira’s involvement,) there’s a promise to it. It’s just not a hollow promise.” Preceding its collaboration with Limoneira, Lewis Group had already been hiring outside experts to teach cooking and gardening classes at its Harvest communities. Now, Lewis said, he’s excited about the prospect of having Limoneira personnel involved in such programming, not only in Santa Paula but at the other Harvests as well. At the same time, Santa Paula’s Harvest is going to “provide construction jobs, marketing jobs in the short term. In the longer term, an increase of 1,500 families will support (and economically stimulate) the downtown of Santa Paula,” Lewis said. Despite Santa Paula being in the crosshairs of the Thomas Fire, the December blaze did not impact the Harvest property or delay the project, as it is still in its earliest stages. Presently, crews are installing utilities while construction will start later this year. First residents are expected on the site in May of next year. What also attracted Lewis to partner with Limoneira is “the nature of the property itself, where it is and what it is. It’s in a very good setting. It’s very underserved. There’s a real scarcity of property, especially Ventura County.” SOAR issue Harvest at Limoneira arrives at a time when Ventura County has become ripe for development. Ventura voters first approved SOAR in 1995, and nine SOAR initiatives have since been enacted in Ventura County’s major cities. However, the county has long embraced SOAR’s protectionist ethos. In the early 1990s, the city of Ventura fended off forces hoping to install a California State University there, which ultimately led to the creation of California State University, Channel Islands in Camarillo. The city has also rebuffed fast food and other franchises in downtown Ventura and banned billboard advertising there. But some economists blame SOAR for Ventura County’s long economic rut and believe such austere views have become obsolete in the face of inevitable growth. The losses of Ventura County’s economy suffered during 2013-15 was “worse than during the recession,” Fienup said, with big losses in nondurable manufacturing. “Employers in that sector are saying part of their inability (to prosper is due to) SOAR creating a lack of construction and growth opportunities,” he explained. “SOAR is the most crude and blunt policy and instrument you can (wield). It binds developers and environmentalists (alike) and, in its application, it’s a moratorium. And we’re seeing the economic consequences of that,” Fienup continued. Jared Barton, associate professor of economics at the Martin V. Smith School of Business and Economics at Cal State Channel Islands, also believes SOAR is damaging the local economy. The answer is more projects like Harvest at Limoneira, he said. “The voters who live near Harvest will let new neighbors in,” Barton told the Business Journal. “That’s great. In the absence of SOAR, there would be many more of these and they would happen faster.” Harvest at Limoneira benefited from the fact that the property is entirely within the city of Santa Paula, so voters in that city had the right to decide whether to approve the project – which they did. Ultimately, Fienup concluded, “Limoneira is very well respected” and housing is sorely needed. “What I like about it is that the residents of the city of Santa Paula approved it,” he said.