Ventura County residents can't have it both ways, the experts say.
They can't save farmland while building large houses on big lots.
They can't preserve the open space between their cities without changing the rules of city life.
And they won't be able to keep their bucolic county the way it is without making some sacrifices along the way.
But people just don't seem to get it, planners say. Not yet.
Since 1998, when two-thirds of local voters threw up a barricade to save what remains of Ventura County's fertile topsoil, it's been mostly business as usual.
No local city has done much in response to a series of SOAR anti-sprawl ballot measures that protect the lands which separate cities.
City councils and planning codes--along with homeowners worried about their property values--still favor large-lot subdivisions and shopping centers with vast parking lots.
New houses and businesses are gobbling up acres at the fastest rate since the 1980s.
So the question remains: How should cities accommodate the 166,457 new residents, 54,586 new dwellings and myriad of new businesses expected as Ventura County's population grows by 22% over the next 20 years? And what happens after that?
Even now, planning experts say existing growth restrictions should force local cities to reexamine their long-range building strategies.
According to a new Ventura Council of Governments report, local cities have plenty of land zoned for business and industry, but too little land to house the new workers that industry will bring.
That could eventually clog freeways with commuters coming into Ventura County, not just with locals driving to Los Angeles--gridlock both ways.
To grow as projected, seven of 10 local cities need to fit more people onto less land than they do now, the Council of Governments study says.
Their options include building more dwellings per acre, rebuilding run-down neighborhoods or rezoning land now set aside for other uses--such as stores, industry, farms or open space. Or they could allow homes and businesses together in reinvigorated downtowns.
Most cities can't begin to provide the new dwellings needed to satisfy the growth they forecast for themselves--at least not in traditional ways.
Camarillo and Oxnard, for example, have set aside just a fraction of their vacant land for new homes, but both expect nearly a one-third increase in population by 2020. Ventura and Thousand Oaks also will remain short of housing.
Some cities--such as Ventura and Simi Valley--might also begin allowing construction on hillsides with steep slopes. And Santa Paula--not yet subject to voter-imposed growth boundaries--already is moving to annex more land.
"You can't just draw a boundary around a city and then let everything else happen the way it's always happened," said author and planner Bill Fulton, who was chairman of a "visioning" committee that recently considered Ventura's future. "And that's what we are doing right now."
Growth is coming and it has to settle somewhere. Under city master plans, it will cover virtually all usable vacant land during the next 20 years. Then it will either spill onto farmland on the urban fringes, or turn back on itself.
"We need to look very hard at what land is left within urban boundaries, and how we're going to use it," said Nancy Settle, supervisor for regional projects at the county planning department. "It will go fast."
City leaders could slow that progression by pressing new residents and new businesses onto less and less space--using every acre as if it were the last. By building more on less. By building up, not out. And doing that in creative, attractive ways.
That has happened in isolated pockets--apartments above a furniture store in Fillmore, an executive's loft above an ambulance company in Oxnard, 26 condos on a single acre in downtown Ventura and, in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, family homes on lots so narrow the property line is a neighbor's wall.
But it hasn't happened much. And it's been driven mostly by developers, not city officials.
So by the year 2020, when most of the anti-sprawl ballot measures expire, "virtually every city will be faced with decisions as to whether to expand onto valuable prime agricultural land, or attempt to contain their growth within existing boundaries," says the Council of Governments analysis. "Ventura County and its cities should begin immediately to consider the issues raised by the continuing conflict between development and preservation of agricultural land," the report recommends.
Ventura County voters may think they have already decided.
During the last five years, two-thirds of voters have approved a countywide Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measure that prohibits urban development outside cities without voter consent. Similar measures set urban boundaries in Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. And growth-control initiatives for Fillmore and Santa Paula are expected to qualify for the November ballot.