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California and the West | THE TIMES POLL

Ventura County Backs Slow Growth


Ventura County is where Los Angeles really ends.

It is, in fact, what Los Angeles County used to be--a string of smallish cities separated by furrowed farms, a suburban patchwork pretty enough to lure immigrants with the promise of blue skies and a slower, simpler life.

It is what the San Fernando Valley was in the 1950s, what Orange County was in the 1960s.

But Ventura County residents now fear that politicians are paving over paradise, and they want to stop them before it is too late, according to a new Times poll.

The poll--the most extensive so far on political attitudes here--found that nearly two-thirds of Ventura County residents favor slowing growth and limiting development even if that hurts business and cuts jobs.

In both the newer commuter communities of eastern Ventura County and the older towns of the west, residents say they want to halt suburbia's sprawl across prime farmland and open space: About half even favor stripping control of farmland development from elected officials--and giving it to voters instead.

Indeed, more than half of poll respondents say bucolic Ventura County can prosper even if it grows very little or not at all.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a former real estate agent and former Simi Valley mayor. "All you have to do is look at why people came here to start with. For the most part, they came to escape the turmoil of the inner city, to raise families, to have a safer and better quality of life. And they don't want that to change."

In conducting its survey, the Times poll interviewed 1,286 adults in the county between Sept. 20 and 23. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll found that even after seven years of recession-slowed growth, nearly half of the residents say the county is still growing too fast, while 44% say it is growing at the right pace.

About half of registered voters would back a quarter-cent sales tax increase to preserve the county's rich farmlands by buying development rights from farmers, while 41% oppose the concept.

"I've been here for a long time, and every time I leave my home I see all this land that used to be beautiful farms but is just housing now," said poll respondent Jeff Tanner, 61, a retired Navy medical corpsman from Port Hueneme. "I want the growth to stop. But I suppose it's just a wish."

That, of course, is the kicker.

While strongly favoring slower growth, a solid majority of residents doubt that Ventura County can withstand the march of urban development any more than the rest of Southern California was able to pull up a drawbridge and stop expansion when residents thought their towns were big enough.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said it is inevitable that developers will eventually buy up most of the farmland, and that agriculture--still the county's No. 1 industry--will virtually cease to exist.

It's not only in Moorpark, the county's fastest-growing city, where construction is taking off again. Huge housing projects in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Camarillo and Oxnard--delayed by a recession that cut the county's annual population growth to a meager 1% a year--are racing to catch the coattails of the county's latest boom.

Ventura County has seen its population swell by 5 1/2 times since 1950. And throughout the county, officials are projecting another surge in construction of housing, office buildings and industrial parks.

But many residents who are already here say they want no part of it: Not in their backyard or neighborhood or hilltop or verdant valley.

"Traffic on the highways is just too much. Our schools are crowded. It's too fast. When we moved out here it was so nice," said Linda Ketelhut, 48, a university payroll manager and Thousand Oaks resident for 21 years.

The slow growth activists' more restrictive strategy seems to have the upper hand, given the results of the Times poll. By a 50% to 42% margin, registered voters say they would back a ballot measure that strips farmers of their rights to develop their land, while seizing authority over land use from elected officials and turning it over to voters.

Voters in the city of Ventura were among the first in California to pass such an initiative in 1995, and sponsors want a countywide measure on the November 1998 ballot.

"A fundamental core value of the citizens of Ventura County is to preserve this semirural feeling and the buffers between the cities," said Ventura Councilman Steve Bennett, co-author of the 1995 measure. "It's not like a fad. People are not going to say in a few years, 'Now I'd like to have urban sprawl. Now it's OK for this place to look like the San Fernando Valley.' "

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