MOORPARK — Residents in this farm town-turned-suburb have long waited to weigh in on Ventura County's growth-control debate, forced to watch from the sidelines as voters in other communities set clear agendas for how their cities should expand.
Come Tuesday, the wait will be over.
In what is being called a watershed election for the onetime farm community, Moorpark voters will go to the polls to decide whether to adopt strict growth-control measures and halt construction of the largest housing project in the city's history.
Passage of the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiative would prevent the city from growing beyond its borders without voters' approval.
A second ballot measure would overturn the Moorpark City Council's approval of the Hidden Creek Ranch housing project, which would add 3,221 homes to the city and boost its population by one-third over the next two decades.
Taken together, the twin initiatives represent the most extensive effort yet in Ventura County by slow-growth activists bent on giving voters the final authority in land-use decisions.
Moreover, many believe the election represents a crossroads for a city not even two decades old, a defining moment for residents confronting competing visions of their community's future.
"It is the most important election in Moorpark's history," said Roseann Mikos, a 17-year resident and coauthor of the SOAR measure. "It will allow people to have some control over urban sprawl. And if we don't do it now, we probably will have lost our last chance."
More than 16,000 residents, nearly 60% of the city's population, are registered to take part in the election, which comes two months after voters countywide approved a SOAR measure that prevents farmland and open space outside cities from being rezoned for development without voters' approval.
During the same election, voters in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Oxnard approved complementary SOAR measures such as the one on the ballot in Moorpark, blocking development outside their borders.
A similar measure in Santa Paula was defeated at the polls.
The Moorpark measure was intended for the same ballot, but legal wrangling and bureaucratic delays forced a special election instead.
Slow-growth activists and others say Moorpark is especially vulnerable to development pressures. Because its neighbors have all enacted tough growth-control restrictions, Moorpark could become the favorite target of development interests countywide unless local voters adopt a SOAR measure of their own.
While agreeing that runaway growth is undesirable, opponents say the SOAR effort is misguided.
They say the best way for Moorpark to control its future is to allow careful, planned growth, not to shut it off altogether. They contend the city needs to increase its tax base if it is to provide the public services residents demand.
Project Offers Open Space, Revenues
Chief among the opponents is Costa Mesa-based Messenger Investment Co., which is proposing to build Hidden Creek Ranch. In addition to the housing, the project would give Moorpark 1,700 acres of open space and hand the city and school district tens of millions of dollars in building fees. The money would be used to build and improve schools, roads and other public facilities.
"It's certainly a major opportunity for the residents of Moorpark to take control of their future," said Gary Austin, Messenger's vice president of planning and entitlements.
"My theory is, if you are going to have growth, and I don't think you can stop people from coming to Southern California, you want to have control over that growth," he said. "What Moorpark has the opportunity to do here is implement a master plan over approximately 4,300 acres that is very predictable, that is phased, that has all kinds of controls and conditions, that really does give them control over their future."
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's election, many expect the electoral battle in Moorpark to simply give way to a legal battle.
If, for instance, voters approve SOAR but also give city leaders the green light to push forward with Hidden Creek Ranch, the result would amount to halting growth while approving it at the same time. The inconsistencies almost certainly would have to be sorted out in court.
In fact, the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. last week warned Moorpark council members they would face a lawsuit if SOAR passes. The association, a nonprofit trade group of farms and farm-related businesses, contends the initiative violates state laws governing annexation and boundary issues.
"It could really muddy the water completely," said Councilman John Wozniak, who opposes SOAR and supports Hidden Creek Ranch. "What I have said all along with this is that it's unfortunate that we have put this on the ballot but it may be decided by a judge somewhere else, not by the people."