VENTURA — Time was that only developers vied for the coveted permits to build new houses in the city. But in the last week, cash-hungry agencies in Ventura have inundated the City Council with requests for the permits.
Last Monday, school officials asked the City Council to set aside 300 housing permits for vacant land in east Ventura that the district wants to sell. Two days later, the port district asked the council to set aside another 300 for a plot near the harbor. And the city is considering setting aside about 400 for the 87 acres of city-owned lemon groves in the east end.
From the school district to the port district, bagging hard-to-get housing allocations has become the fund-raising method of choice for financially strapped agencies and projects.
The strategy: Get a batch of residential housing permits to develop your land, increase your property value--or rent--from five to 15 times, and sell for a profit.
"Those allocations are worth as much as the property," said Ted Temple, the Planning Commission chairman.
The latest rush for land by public agencies highlights a problem that has grown steadily worse in recent years: how to control growth--both numbers and quality--in a land-scarce city where population is swelling rapidly.
To address this issue, the City Council and the Planning Commission will meet jointly tonight to discuss overhauling the process the city uses to grant housing permits.
William Fulton, a private urban planner and 10-year Ventura resident, calls this overhaul a chance to move away from deals, and back to vision.
The city put a yearlong moratorium on issuing housing permits last year--pending the release of a report on school overcrowding. Now that report is out, and the moratorium is scheduled to be lifted this spring. So the city is ready to sit down and tackle how to resume doling out housing permits.
The process as it stands leaves the city open to charges that housing allocations are based less on the city's housing needs or the quality of the development and more on the politics and accompanying amenities developers are offering.
"When you have a system that confers value on some landowners and not on others, you have to know why," Fulton said. "Otherwise you are always going to be open to favoritism. I think that's bad policy."
Growth in Ventura--in terms of people and houses--is controlled in two major ways: through procedures laid out in the city's Comprehensive Plan and through a process known as the residential growth management process (RGMP), which doles out housing permits.
The Comprehensive Plan lays out population limits and economic goals for the city. The RGMP process, based on population numbers and criteria in the Comprehensive Plan, determines how many houses developers can build in a given year. Once that number is determined, developers must compete for a limited number of permits.
City staff points out the lengthy process can force developers to apply for permits long before they are ready to build, meaning permits could go unused for years.
In other cases, some say city officials have favored developers who offer public amenities, such as parks or libraries, rather than consider just the quality or the location of the project.
Some critics cite the Neel project on Ventura Avenue, which the Planning Commission initially rejected in 1995.
But after the Neels offered to spend $500,000 building a new Avenue Library, the City Council agreed last spring to let the developer move ahead with the project and borrow 180 housing permits set aside for downtown, an area where the city is trying to encourage residential development.
A city staff report calls the current process "outdated, confusing, and difficult and expensive for all parties to implement." More important, the report continues, "the existing RGMP . . . does not result in better projects."
Others are harsher in their criticism.
Sandy Smith, who sits on the Planning Commission, says the process is antiquated, especially as the city fills out and deals with a voter-approved measure that limits development on farmland.
"We are a mature community. The old ways don't work anymore," Smith says. "We have limited prospects for development. The days of growth in the east end . . . have been limited partially by SOAR [Save Our Agricultural Resources Initiative], but also because we don't have that much more land."
And Fulton argues that the current process, lacking in objective criteria, leaves the city open to ad hoc decisions, and leaves too many important development decisions to the discretion of the politicians.
"Other communities know what their criteria are," Fulton says. "They have a very clear process for doling out applications. In Ventura it is very fuzzy. This helps to undermine public confidence in city government . . . it leads to the impression that if you have a crisis, or you are connected, you can go in and make a deal."