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Writer Pens Critiques of County Projects : Commentary: Essayist and urban planner William Fulton of Ventura points out the good, the bad and the abominable of local land-use decisions.


For urban planner-essayist William Fulton, the road from upstate New York to hillside Ventura was lined with barbed commentary and, sometimes, infuriated response.

A Washington sportswriter was so offended by a 1985 Fulton column arguing against a major league baseball team for the nation's capital that he declared Fulton's assertions "the greatest compendium of flapdoodle ever accepted for the written page."

"I felt that if Shirley Povich was writing a column attacking me," Fulton said recently, "then maybe I'd finally arrived as a pundit."

Fulton, 38, a Ventura resident since 1987 but a planner and writer with a nationwide scope, has only recently begun to turn his planner's expertise and sharp pen to communities around him in Ventura County.

And Fulton's perspectives, incorporated in his statewide planning newsletter, California Planning & Development Report, increasingly strike home with local subscribers--professional planners in Thousand Oaks, Ventura, Oxnard and the County Hall of Administration.

"I can't think of another individual who has his perspective on new ideas, new legal decisions and new ways of doing things in land-use planning," said Everett Millais, Ventura's top city planner. "Most planners don't write very well, so his ability to make sense out of some very complex issues is a unique talent. Whenever I see something by him, I read it."

Fulton said that after seven years in the county, he is ready to occasionally turn an eye to local planning decisions. "I've been here long enough now to have an opinion," he said. "People are going to hate me."

A sampling of Fulton opinions:

* Putting a Cal State university campus among lemon groves near Camarillo is the worst planning decision in recent county history. "You're basically busting the greenbelt. The site is a disaster."

* The Ahmanson Ranch mini-city project in the Simi Hills is not a bad deal, since the government could not have paid market prices for the 10,000 acres of parkland in the package and pressure to build on the ranch certainly would have increased.

* Weldon Canyon at the mouth of the Ojai Valley should be approved as the west county's principal landfill. "You can get riled up about saving one canyon, but if we're going to generate trash, we have to figure out how to deal with it."

* A new jail in the agricultural greenbelt near Santa Paula was necessary and its approval responsible. "In order to be true communities, the good things and the bad things have to be together. And a jail is part of it."

Here and elsewhere, Fulton--who holds master's degrees in urban planning and journalism--straddles the line between planning and commentary.

He not only publishes a monthly newsletter, but analyzes development issues for magazines and newspapers nationwide, lectures on urban planning at UC Santa Barbara and recently completed a UCLA-sponsored study on growth along the Ventura Freeway near Thousand Oaks.

He even addressed land-use issues as a government official, serving as chairman of the West Hollywood Planning Commission in 1986-87.

Now Fulton sees himself as a lightning rod for topical discussion.

"It's sort of my job to bring things to people's attention," he said. "In the planning profession in California, there are very few people who can get up and speak their minds without stepping on toes. They either work for government agencies or are consultants for developers."

Millais recalled a scene at a national planning conference where Fulton, a featured speaker, provoked a heated debate.

"He put forward to a group of die-hard planning types that the only effective planning is being done by developers," Millais said.


Surrounded by the paintings of his artist wife in his light-splashed office overlooking a green Ondulando-area hillside, Fulton discussed what he sees as the best and worst planning decisions in recent county history.

He cited abominable projects in Ventura and Oxnard but gave the county high marks for its determination to prevent leapfrog development beyond city boundaries.

"What all this adds up to, I think, is we've established a pretty good framework for regional planning," he said. "But when you get down to the projects, it's just a mess."

Success can be measured by the continued separation of the county's 10 cities by farmland and by park agencies' acquisition of scenic ranches in the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills, he said.

The county can also be proud of efforts to restore the historic downtowns of the west county. And, taken on its own terms as a commuter suburb, Thousand Oaks, especially the Westlake portion, is remarkably attractive and self-contained, he said.

But many key decisions at the city level have been marked by a lack of vision--and by officials' refusal to take an unpopular stand, he said.

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