Two Ventura County supervisors are proposing creation of a special district to buy and preserve farmland, a plan that could also ask residents to tax themselves to pay for it.
Supervisors John Flynn and Frank Schillo will ask colleagues for their support in launching the preservation effort when the board meets tonight.
As officials in 10 counties already have done, the supervisors will ask state lawmakers to draft legislation next year authorizing the creation of an open-space district. That would allow the collection of private money and tax dollars for land conservation.
Much of the county's unincorporated land is already shielded from sprawl by an ordinance that requires voter approval before building can occur on farmland and open space. But the protections in the slow-growth Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources law expire in 2020 if they are not renewed.
"There's only one way to guarantee [sprawl won't occur], and that's to own [the land]," Schillo said. "Who knows what's going to happen to SOAR in 20 years? This is a permanent thing."
Once an open-space district is created, Flynn said, the next step would be to poll county residents to find out what land people want the county to buy, how they want the land used and how they want to pay for it.
He said any plan to issue bonds, increase the local sales tax rate or levy parcel taxes in targeted neighborhoods would require voter approval. Flynn and Schillo said voters gave them a mandate to create a special district with the passage of Measure A in 1998. The ballot measure, which asked whether public and private funds should be used to preserve land, received 68% of the vote.
Nevertheless, today's board debate could be testy. Supervisor Judy Mikels, a fiscal conservative whose Simi Valley supporters include developers and others who oppose land preservation, said last week she questions the need for an open-space district.
"We already have several parks districts and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy," Mikels said. "How much is too much?
"No one has shown me how buying development rights for a piece of agricultural land guarantees the continuation of agriculture," Mikels said. "Is the government going to step in and start growing crops? I don't think there's enough long-term thinking."
Flynn said Mikels' vote on the five-member board may not be necessary because he is confident Supervisors Kathy Long and Susan Lacey will support the plan. Neither could be reached for comment.
It's unclear how much money would be needed to purchase property or what land would be targeted. Creating such a district could allow the county to purchase land in the Tierra Rejada and Las Posas valleys, where greenbelt and federal land purchase efforts have stalled in recent months.
The 10 counties that have open-space districts are Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Sacramento, Napa, Marin and Sonoma, according to a consultant's report.
Some of those districts have been active. In Los Angeles, a special assessment costs the average homeowner $18 a year and goes into a fund expected to raise $540 million for land acquisition through 2019.
In other counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino, voters have rejected tax increases or other levies needed to pay for land.
A 1997 poll by the University of California's Hansen Trust showed Ventura County voters were divided on the subject.
Although most residents supported protecting farmland, 50% said they would oppose tax increases to pay for it.
But 60% said they would support a $26-a-year parcel tax. At the same time, those polled said they would prefer strict zoning rules to a land-purchasing program.