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Sunday, Aug 7, 2022

Is It Wetland?

Thousand Oaks landowner Shawn Moradian wants to unseat Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks after exposing what he views as a conflict of interest regarding his Newbury Park parcel that went before Thousand Oaks City Council for rezoning. 

Parks sits on the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, as well as Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Moradian sees that as a conflict as the conservancy’s environmental agenda and the city’s land use interests aren’t aligned regarding his property.

“Parks, who also sits on Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, initiated this backdoor deal with their executive staff to come up with a way to sabotage and block this vote,” Moradian said. “The city never saw her input.” 

Moradian filed a tort claim Oct. 20 alleging collusion after Moradian obtained a May exchange of emails between Parks and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Deputy Director of Natural Resources and Planning Paul Edelman that appears to reveal Parks prodding Edelman to dissuade the city of Thousand Oaks from considering Moradian’s property for commercial and residential development and devalue the land so that the conservancy could acquire it. 

“They came up with this campaign to call the property protected wetlands and public open space, neither of which are true,” said Moradian, referring to the 37-acre property off Borchard Drive and the 101 freeway owned by his family since 1978. 

However, from the perspective of Parks and the conservancy, the parcel cannot be developed because of a watershed easement used for flood control that was deeded with the property when the Moradians purchased it. 

“His property is used as a detention basin to hold stormwater,” Parks said. “That’s why it’s prohibited from any development (and) that’s why they purchased it for pennies on the dollar.” 


‘Caruso-like destination’ 

Moradian, who has grand designs for the site, has no interest in selling his property.  

The timing over Moradian’s issue with the county supervisor and state agency comes as Thousand Oaks updates its General Plan.  

Moradian – owner of Tarantula Hill Brewing Co. in Thousand Oaks – has drawn up conceptual plans to create an experiential “Caruso-like destination,” taking advantage of mixed-use zoning to create restaurants, shops, hospitality, housing, entertainment venues and open spaces centered around a manmade lake.  

In 2017, six major sites were initially designated to be rezoned for mixed-use development. 

“Ours is the single largest one that is nearly half of the opportunity sites,” said Moradian. “Amgen and Atara (Biotherapeutics) are on the other side of the freeway, like a five-minute walk.” 

Moradian envisions a Tarantula Hill open beer garden with live music and other amenities that an Amgen employee could “hop on your bicycle or Uber and you’re in the center of these activities.” 

Rezoning in his favor could mean 2 million square feet of mixed-use development, which would generate $1 billion in economic activity and tens of millions in tax revenue for the city.  

“The economic impacts are enormous,” Moradian said of his plan, which includes a residential component.  

“The state is trying to create affordable housing,” he said. “The city of Thousand Oaks is trying to comply, and Linda Parks is trying to sabotage this.” 


‘Suffer more’ email

What led to Moradian’s legal filing began with Edelman’s letter to the city – timed as Thousand Oaks City Council convened to discuss the General Plan update. 

In a May 18 letter titled “Urge No Up Zoning of Borchard Property,” Edelman singled out Moradian’s land, noting that his organization “has long recognized the 37-acre Borchard wetlands property as a unique, irreplaceable ecological and watershed resource.” 

“Solving housing needs on already protected open space that happens to function as a wetland would be a horrible mistake by the city,” Edelman wrote. “The cost of new accessible open space to the city has become astronomical.” 

He urged Thousand Oaks City Council “not to up zone the subject property even by a single unit.”   

The letter moved Moradian to utilize the Freedom of Information Act in June to acquire copies of work emails between Parks and Edelman. 

In a May 4 email to Edelman, Parks, under the subject line “When is a wetland not a wetland?” shared her concern regarding the Borchard property.

Parks appeared frustrated by Moradian’s successful past legal actions – which removed groundwater from neighboring Teleflex and diverted CalTrans stormwater from the Borchard parcel – that led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to officially grant Moradian’s property non-wetland status.  

Now, Parks continued, the General Plan Update “decided it could handle 1,600 units and commercial, though the final number is still in flux.” 

“This is on the conservancy’s acquisition list,” Parks wrote Edelman of Moradian’s land. “It might be worth a comment letter.”   

Parks then described her “vision of acquiring (the property) and have it be a wetland, perhaps with a boardwalk (for waterfowl).” 

After assuring Parks that hydric soil determines what is wetlands, Edelman’s email  culminated with him writing: “Since Moradian has shifted the tide, he is still an unlikely willing seller at fair market value. He needs to suffer more to get to that point.” 

Moradian recalled his disbelief after receiving the email transcripts. 

“We’re operating under the presumption that this is the United States of America where everyone has their due process,” he said.

At no time did his family intend to sell the land to the conservancy, Moradian said. 

“They want a private family to suffer so they could take away their property from them,” said Moradian, a Thousand Oaks native.

In June, Moradian brought up the matter at the monthly conservancy meeting during public comments, which turned contentious when the organization’s Executive Director Joe Edmiston pushed back on Moradian’s claims.  

Following the tense meeting, Moradian called for an internal investigation and tried to put the issue on the agenda for a meeting – both to no avail.  

“They took no action and they see nothing wrong with their behind-the-scenes ‘suffer more’ campaign,” Moradian said. “They need to be removed and recused.” 

Flood question

The conservancy maintains that Moradian cannot develop on what it considers a vulnerable wetland with a crucial easement running through it. 

Edleman – who would not comment on the emails – said that the Borchard property needs the Ventura County Watershed Protection District flowage easement as it “floods regularly.” 

“The fact that 100 percent of the property has a county flood control easement on it is a fact,” Edelman said. “Thousand Oaks can zone it for skyscrapers and that does not extinguish the county easement.” 

Parks agreed with Edelman. 

“A deed is a deed is a deed. It doesn’t expire,” Parks said. “The easement prohibits all development on the whole property.  It’s not an opinion, it’s what the easement states because it’s used as a flood control basin.” 

However, Moradian calls the easement issue “a red herring.” 

 “(The property has) never flooded once,” he said. “It’s a political problem that Linda Parks has manifested.” 

Moradian said that the watershed easement mandate on his property expired when the city of Thousand Oaks and CalTrans completed the Borchard offramp in 2003. 

However, it was during this construction project that the city and Caltrans created a situation that detoured millions of gallons of water from neighboring medical device maker Teleflex onto the Moradians’ land. 

“Teleflex had a permit to dump its water into a ditch that they thought would go to the ocean,” Moradian said. (When Cal Trans blocked the ditch, Teleflex) dumped that water in the channel between the property and the freeway. It was redirected onto our property daily.”  

Close to 700 million gallons of water flooded the Borchard property, Moradian said. “They created wetlands when they redirected all of this nuisance water onto our property,” he said. 

The Moradian family sued CalTrans and the city of Thousand Oaks in 2006. Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed with the Moradian family, which won the case.  

CalTrans had to construct a new culvert. Teleflex’s water was shut off in 2009. By 2010, the property reverted back to dry land, which the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed and deemed not a wetland. 

“That flood easement is for the 100-year flood, which we never had,” Moradian said. “This easement was never used.” 

Dual boards

Moradian has enlisted attorney Barry Groveman, former mayor of Calabasas, to petition California Attorney General Robert Bonta to explore whether Parks’ actions should have her removed from public service. 

According to the tort document Groveman filed, Parks “initiated and entered into a secret, unsolicited and unauthorized arrangement with conservancy senior executives Joe Edmiston and Paul Edelman. These three officials have since acted publicly and in writing to disparage and devalue the property, in order to secure its acquisition by the conservancy for a pennies-on-the-dollar price, and to stop legitimate, essential and legal activities by the city.” 

Parks countered the entire legal premise of Moradian’s dispute.  

“The law is really clear that I do not have to resign from the conservancy board,” said Parks, who has been on the board for 18 years. “The law that created the conservancy calls for a member of the Board of Supervisors of Ventura County to sit on it.” 

On behalf of Parks, County Counsel Tiffany North answered Moradian’s tort claim by stating that “the county disagrees with (Moradian’s) narrative. Supervisor Parks’ actions at both the conservancy and the county have been in accordance with the law.”

Parks believes that Moradian is spreading misinformation regarding the easement’s expiration. As for the email exchange with Edelman, Parks called some of his lines “unfortunate.” 

“(The strong language) is in Paul’s emails, it is not in my emails,” Parks said. “I found that Paul Edelman’s comments were inappropriate, and I let his boss Joe Edmiston know.”  

But Parks noted that her inquiring whether Edelman could write a comment letter was not inappropriate. 

For now, the zoning decision on Moradian’s property must wait until early next year as the city conducts the environmental impact report before the City Council will decide on new zoning.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.

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