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City Growth at Center of Ventura Debate : Government: Critics say council's decision to increase population cap violates Comprehensive Plan. Officials defend action.


Four years ago, after weeks of fervid public debate, the Ventura City Council adopted a moderate growth plan that would limit the city's population to 102,000 by the year 2000.

Last week, the council passed a measure that has the potential to boost the city's population to about 106,578 by 1996, in effect junking a key component of the city's Comprehensive Plan and touching off cries of protest from slow-growth advocates.

The action came as the council, for the first time in three years, approved large-scale residential development. Since 1990, a moratorium on water hookups--triggered by drought concerns--had effectively halted all development in the city.

Former Councilman Richard Francis, who was in office when the Comprehensive Plan was passed, is among those criticizing the change in the population cap.

"I think it was deceptive," Francis said. "It was an intentional end run on the Comprehensive Plan."

The Comprehensive Plan, a legally binding document used as a planning guide for the city's future, states that for the city's planning area: "as of April 1, 2000, the maximum population allocation should not exceed 102,000, unless adequate water supplies are secured. If adequate water supplies are secured, the maximum population as of April 1, 2000, should not exceed 105,000, indexed to the Federal Census."

At the time the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 1989, city officials say, it was based on the assumption that the city and some surrounding areas had a population of about 94,000.

The council agreed it would use 1990 census figures on which to base the city's growth. When the census data came out later, the city's population was 92,575. But, said Everett Millais, the city's community development director, that number rose to 98,578 when areas near the city--but not actually within the city limits--were included.

"Even though these areas are not in the city's limits, we approve housing allocations in these areas as well," Millais said. "More importantly, we supply water to these areas, so they are included in the population estimate."

Millais said the city provides water, fire and some police service to the Saticoy area, the Montalvo neighborhood and areas of north Ventura Avenue. Although those neighborhoods are in unincorporated county land, they are within the city of Ventura's planning area.

Those residents outside the city number about 6,000 and helped inflate the 1990 population figure to 98,578--about 4,500 people over the estimate, Millais said.

"We thought it would be over, but not by that much," Millais said.

Without any public hearing or debate, the council simply added 4,578 people to the Comprehensive Plan, Millais said. This is legal, he said, because the Comprehensive Plan states that the population figures would be indexed to the census data.

The original 102,000 population cap was drawn from an environmental study based on residents' water consumption, Millais said. However, he added, residents are conserving more now, so more water is available.

Don Villeneuve, another former council member and a slow-growther, disagrees with the reasoning.

"That index thing was weaseled in there," Villeneuve said. "What they're doing is a numbers game. The indexing shouldn't change what the cap was."

The council last week voted to allocate a total of 500 housing units in the downtown area, plus 35 units for small residential projects and 140 units for larger residential projects each year through 1996. In 1996, the council will re-evaluate its growth plan and may allocate more or fewer housing units, based on how much water is available.

Council members also allocated an additional 335 housing units for two other development projects. According to city planners, the two developments were ongoing projects that got stalled because of the three-year ban on development.

The month before, the council gave the go-ahead for nine small residential projects, totaling 108 housing units, that also were delayed by the moratorium on water hookups. A housing unit is a single family home or an apartment. City officials say that for every housing unit, an average of 2.5 people are added to the city's population.

Slow-growth proponents charge that the council still does not have adequate water supplies to accommodate thousands of new residents. Therefore, they argue, the council also violated the Comprehensive Plan by approving new housing units.

Millais said the Comprehensive Plan does not explicitly spell out what is considered "adequate water supplies" that would accommodate growth. The seven-member council, elected at large, has the power to determine what is considered sufficient water to handle a population increase, he said.

"We haven't secured adequate water supplies," said Councilwoman Cathy Bean, the only member to vote against the housing allocations. "We basically ignored the Comprehensive Plan."

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