VENTURA — Not too long ago City Council candidates defined themselves by where they stood on issues of growth and development.
Environmentalists, who made apocalyptic predictions of rampant population growth that would pave over lemon orchards with ugly suburban sprawl, pitted themselves against pro-business types, who rolled out rosy predictions of the new business and increased revenues development would bring.
But then two years ago, Ventura voters approved some of the most progressive legislation in the state to preserve local farmland--effectively putting thousands of acres off-limits to development.
And the debate changed.
Now, as Ventura heads into the next century as a mature community with little room to grow, those who run the city say the challenge has shifted: The question is no longer should Ventura grow, but how should Ventura grow.
"Nobody is in this mode any longer that you have to engage in suburban sprawl for the health of the city," said Councilman Steve Bennett, who helped write the voter-approved farmland preservation initiative in Ventura in November 1995. "Now it's how do we revitalize the current areas as they age."
Pick up an election pamphlet, drop by a campaign fund-raiser, or tag along on a precinct walk, and growth may not even come up among the 10 candidates vying for four open seats on the City Council.
But history and public attitudes show that as suburban sprawl seeps across the county's fertile agricultural land, growth and development will remain uppermost in the minds of Ventura voters when they troop to the ballot box Nov. 4.
"Growth is definitely still an issue--a big issue," candidate Brian Lee Rencher said. "It's kind of toned down as far as the amount of noise citizens are making, but I think citizens still feel the same way."
Indeed, the importance of growth--and planning for it--is strongly reflected in this year's field of candidates.
Four of the candidates boast of either government or personal planning experience.
Carl Morehouse is a land-use planner for the county. Sandy Smith is a second-term planning commissioner for the the city. Brian Brennan serves on the Ventura County Planning Commission--appointed by Supervisor Susan Lacey last year. And Doug Halter has helped rehabilitate 12 buildings in downtown Ventura--wading through the planning process with his business.
"I think this will be the most pro-planning council I can recall," predicted Bill Fulton, an author and urban planner familiar with politics in California. "I think that this council will care about reversing the perception that the city is arbitrary in its planning process. They are going to be less likely to make politically motivated, capricious planning decisions."
Without exception, this year's candidates accept that population growth in Ventura is inevitable.
"People are coming," said motorcycle magazine editor Mike Osborn, voicing a view shared by all the candidates. "That's just a fact."
But they differ in their views of how the city should plan and manage that growth--and how much of a priority that should be.
On one end of the spectrum is five-term incumbent Jim Monahan, the lone council veteran in a field of newcomers, who does not view growth as the voters' main concern.
He says the city's comprehensive plan has capped Ventura's population, the revised housing allocation process has resolved how many houses will be built, and the agricultural greenbelts that divide the region's cities "are pretty much solidified.
"I think that growth is really not the issue right now," Monahan said, noting that it will only "rear its ugly head again" if people start pushing for development in areas that are now off-limits.
On the other end of the spectrum is Morehouse, the county planner who sees "the growth thing" influencing everything--from the health of local businesses, to how crowded local schools are, to Ventura's identity.
"I think growth is the most important issue facing Ventura," he bluntly told a crowd at a candidates' forum several weeks ago.
According to Morehouse, 400,000 people will arrive in Ventura County in the next 25 years, gobbling up 1,000 acres of farmland a year.
"If we are going to put these people in our cities, we are going to have to design them better."
Sandy Smith would put it differently.
"I don't believe growth is a nonissue," he said. "But it's no longer an us versus them issue in Ventura. It's not a question of limitation, but of quality. "
Indeed, most of the candidates agree that carefully managing growth is going to be key to Ventura's future, and they are full of ideas on how to do that.
"Development needs to be reined in," said eight-time council candidate Carroll Dean Williams. "Development has put a strain on the overall condition of the city."
Almost all the candidates strongly advocate in-fill development--renovating and building more densely in older areas of the city where costly infrastructure such as roads and sewers already exist--rather than continuing to sprawl to the east.