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August 16, 2019
By Hector Gonzalez

LAND DEAL?—Sterling Hills Golf Club owner John Zaruka has offered to deed the course over to Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District for 30 years. The transfer would be contingent on the city approving a zoning change that would allow the course owner to develop 20 acres of the 220-acre course for housing.

The owner of Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo is offering to deed the course to the Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District.

Owner John Zaruka proposed converting Sterling Hills into a public golf course and deeding it to the district under a negotiated 30-year lease agreement “that would involve very little risk to the district,” he told board members last week.

Zaruka, who bought the property for $6 million in 2017, said his offer is contingent on receiving approval from the City Council allowing him to sell 15 to 20 acres of the golf course to a home developer in order to keep the course open for the next decade and beyond. Otherwise, he said, he may ultimately be forced to unload the entire 220-acre property.

“People have asked me what happens if I (don’t get approval for the development), and I say, ‘I’ll sell (the course) and take my losses. Then who knows who you’re going to get,’” he told the park board on Aug. 8.

Zaruka announced in late 2018 that he wanted to find a developer to build homes on a portion of the 18-hole course. Selling the land was necessary, he said, to pay down debt and finance repairs needed to keep the 20-year-old course sustainable. His plan quickly riled some Sterling Hills homeowners who say a housing development there would obstruct views and potentially lower property values.

As part of the deed offer, he told the park district’s long-range planning committee— which included board members Mark Malloy and Neal Dixon—last week, once the development is approved by the city, the district would take possession of the deed to the golf course. The park district would then lease back the property to Zaruka for 30 years.  After the 30 years are up, the golf course would be given wholly over to the park district.

“We would do a contract where it would be a very modest lease payment, but you would own the land. We would manage the golf course, which we do now. We pay all the expenses,” he said.

Board members were taken somewhat aback by Zaruka’s proposal, with several members looking visibly surprised. Members said they would need time to fully explore the offer.

“It’s not often that someone walks into our office and offers us . . . free property,” board member Mark Malloy said.

Board members wanted to know what the district’s financial risk would be under such a lease agreement.

Zaruka said the only risk to the district would be if the golf course were to go bankrupt. To eliminate any financial liability, he said, the board could insist that provisions be included in the agreement to protect the district from financial loss.

Malloy said the idea, while promising because it would safeguard against further development of Sterling Hills, needs to be investigated by the district, including looking at how other cities handle ownership of golf courses.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on it,” he said. “How does the county handle this with their golf courses? We have to find out how it could possibly work. The last thing we want is to have ownership of a dilapidated course that needs a lot of work.”

Before Zaruka can develop the land, the City Council must give the OK to rezone the golf course property from open space to residential. Doing so will require Zaruka to have a development plan in place.

He envisions 100 homes on 20 acres of the property, but said the ultimate configuration for the development would be decided with input from residents.