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The Other Border Conflict

May 02, 1999|William Fulton | William Fulton, editor and publisher of the California Planning & Development Report, is the author of "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles," which will be published in paperback later this year

VENTURA — The border wars are back.

Los Angeles County government green-lighted a 21,000-house development project in Newhall Ranch near Six Flags Magic Mountain, pushing suburbanization right up to the Ventura County line and maybe across it. Determined to push the growth back across the border, Ventura County residents struck back.

First, amid a clamor to rid their county of "excess people," Ventura voters approved the SOAR initiative (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources), which prohibits new development on farmland without a vote. More recently, Ventura County lawyers sued L.A. County over Newhall Ranch, claiming that the environmental clearance on the project was defective.

Pushing pressure for growth back across the Ventura County line yet again, L.A. County is pondering strict new land-use regulations in the Santa Monica Mountains. The fruit of planning sessions with surrounding, mostly slow-growth cities like Agoura Hills and Calabasas, the Santa Monica Mountains North Area Plan declares protecting the environment the county's top priority and makes it harder for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to change the plan and allow construction of more houses in the mountains.

In the last few years, this push and pull over growth and development between the region's largest and smallest counties has become almost as much a local-news staple as freeway car chases. In terms of the region's overall housing needs, the struggle is no more important than the chases are to overall traffic congestion. Regional planners predict the addition of another 6 million people--or "two Chicagos," as they like to say--in the next couple of decades. A few hundred houses in the Santa Monica Mountains might produce significant environmental damage, but they won't go very far toward housing even one Chicago. Furthermore, even at 21,000 houses, Newhall Ranch isn't much bigger than a couple of North Side neighborhoods near Wrigley Field.

Where this Ventura-L.A. border war becomes important is in the overall checkerboard of Los Angeles' urban development. Despite the likely continued influx of new residents, places to put them are growing scarce, as metro L.A. approaches the limits of its ultimate geographical size. This accentuates a host of problems: providing housing, protecting the environment and, especially, managing the interactions among adjacent jurisdictions, each with its own approach to growth and change.

In this volatile environment, the L.A.-Ventura border is the Kosovo of the region. Indeed, some residents along the border compare the area to the Balkans and view themselves as members of warring tribes. Just as unrest in the Balkans affects the rest of the world, unrest along the L.A.-Ventura border affects the rest of Southern California.

A quick glance at an L.A. map reveals that there are only four or five places remaining in the region where it is geographically possible for new suburbs to sprawl onto raw land. These include the rolling hills of southern Orange County, the I-215 corridor in Riverside County, the high-desert areas surrounding Victorville and Lancaster and the grazing land and rugged terrain along the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, stretching from Malibu all the way up to Castaic.

In this kind of situation, what any one jurisdiction does has a ripple effect on everybody else. Even before SOAR, for example, Ventura County had been on a strict diet of land-use controls for more than 25 years. The result is a county that has grown more slowly than its suburban counterparts elsewhere in the region. While this has maintained the character of Ventura County communities and preserved its agriculture, it has had another effect: Some demand for growth has been pushed out of the county into other areas--into the San Fernando Valley, for example, and out into Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster.

Now, with L.A. County pushing back with Newhall Ranch and the Santa Monica Mountains, it's time to think about what the consequences of all this skirmishing is likely to be. Most obvious is that the pushing and pulling is going to get more intense, not just along the L.A.-Ventura border, but in all the remaining open areas around Los Angeles.

With two Chicagos on the way, major developers will be competing for the last available scraps of open land. With 15 million people already here, there is no such place as "the middle of nowhere." Even the greenest "field of dreams" has neighbors now and, given the political culture of Southern California, those neighbors are not likely to permit urban-style development. Rather, they'll do what both Los Angeles and Ventura counties have done recently: knock down densities, impose additional environmental mitigations and take other steps that will reduce the amount of new growth allowed in the few remaining undeveloped areas.

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