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How to Save Ventura? Buy It

Marin County is an example of the successful use of a bond initiative to save precious land from development.

September 14, 1997|WILLIAM P. McGOWAN | William P. McGowan is a Ventura resident

A recent column by Ventura City Councilman Steve Bennett identified a strategy to save Ventura County's open space that I feel is both unrealistic and ineffective.

In his article, headlined "Only You Can Prevent Urban Sprawl" (Aug. 24), Bennett suggested that a low-cost campaign of ongoing political vigilance could prevent the county from succumbing to the will of big-moneyed developers.

As an elected local official, Bennett must recognize the naivete of his so-called "solution."

Few can deny that the pressure for urban development across Ventura County is growing. With a huge price differential between what a farmer can get for selling an acre of land to developers rather than to another farmer, we are predictably losing acreage to homes, malls and parking lots every year. Developers who claim to buy land for agricultural purposes know the equation as well--for even if land is currently zoned agricultural, it can always be rezoned with the help of local politicians. Indeed, it was just this sort of illicit commerce that Bennett cited when he chose not to seek another City Council term.

My solution is old-fashioned and capitalistic. Rather than accepting Bennett's proposal for a rear-guard action of spending $150,000 for public awareness in hopes of slowing development on an ad hoc basis, I propose that voters take the issue out of the politicians' hands by buying up the county's most valuable open space through a bond initiative.

Make no mistake, this solution is a far more expensive one than that suggested by Councilman Bennett, but it also is a more permanent one.

For the first 21 years of my life, I lived in a county that had the same development pressures Ventura County faces now. Located north of a major California city, Marin County had its origins in agriculture and recreational property. In the late 1960s, with developers buying up large tracts of agricultural land, the people there passed a bond initiative that provided funds for the outright purchase of the county's ridge line and pasture land. Buying this property at market prices using 30-year bonds, the people of Marin County ensured permanent open space for all at a relatively low per-capita cost.

It is important to note that when this occurred, Marin County was not the affluent county it has become, but was mainly populated by people of low- and middle-class standing--people who thought long and hard before raising their own taxes. Today, Marin has the most open space of any of the seven Bay Area counties, and has a quality of life that is the envy of its neighbors.

Like Marin, we in Ventura County live in a region whose desirability increases as the social conditions of neighboring counties deteriorate. Development pressure, then, should be viewed from a long-term perspective, using solutions that cannot be undone by a change of a city or county board's political makeup.

A famous economist once said that some things are too important to be left to politicians. I suggest that the only way to safeguard Ventura County's quality of life is to take our open space permanently off the political negotiating table through outright purchase.

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