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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Expansion of Care Facility Has Blessings From Many

March 02, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Because of the SOAR anti-sprawl initiatives, an east Ojai Valley nursing home will pay an extra $150,000 to expand onto farmland in a proposal that goes before voters countywide Tuesday.

The $8-million expansion of St. Joseph's Health and Retirement Center, Measure F on the ballot, is that rare ballot proposal that everybody seems to like.

It is officially unopposed and was approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

Even the two authors of the seven Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives passed since 1995 have signed a sample ballot statement in support of the proposal.

Still, it has generated discussion about whether small, beneficial projects such as the new 60-bed wing to St. Joseph's should go before voters countywide, as do large ones.

"I think the original intent of SOAR was to stop 1,000 acres of strawberries from being turned into thousands of homes," county elections chief Bruce Bradley said. "But when you throw out a big net, a lot of little fish get caught in it, too."

This will be only the second test of SOAR's requirement that projects in farm and open space areas be decided by voters. The first was a 1999 proposal by a First Assembly of God church to build a sanctuary, auditorium and ball fields on 25 acres of cropland in east Ventura.

Voters approved the Ventura project, but not before church backers spent $30,000 to $40,000 to gain approval, officials said.

Unlike the Ventura proposal, the Ojai nursing home expansion will be on the ballot countywide, because the retirement center is one-half mile east of the city and will not be annexed to it. Voters from Thousand Oaks to Oxnard to Fillmore will weigh in.

That has pumped up the costs to the nursing home for printing extra ballots to about $91,000, Bradley said. The Brothers of St. John of God religious order has also spent $22,000 on newspaper ads and additional thousands on an ad writer and campaign consultant, Brother Hugo Stippler said.

"I support SOAR, but to have the whole county voting for a small project in Ojai, it doesn't make sense," Stippler said. "It seems like there should be some other way."

Even strong backers of SOAR, such as former Ojai Councilwoman Nina Shelley, say they wish projects like St. Joseph's could be exempted.

"The brothers have served the people of Ojai so well for so long, and this expansion is going to allow them to do more good," she said. "So I wonder why don't the people at the county do something about this. I think SOAR should be written with consideration for smaller projects."

The authors of SOAR--educator Steve Bennett and attorney Richard Francis--say they wish the same thing. But if the initiatives had allowed for any exception, they would have become vulnerable to legal appeals by development interests. The 1995 Ventura SOAR measure was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"If there was a way to find an exception for the St. Joseph's-type projects and keep SOAR legal, that would be fine with me," Bennett said. "But that doesn't seem to be possible."

Despite the costs to applicants, Bennett said he thinks the SOAR review has made the two church projects better because backers had to respond to criticism to ensure approval by voters.

In east Ventura, he said, backers improved their original project by legally guaranteeing that playing fields would remain that way, and be open to the public. In the Ojai Valley, St. Joseph's redesigned its plan in response to neighbors' complaints about noise and traffic. And the brothers agreed to plant 1,000 orange trees on 10 undeveloped acres, to replace nearly 500 being plowed under on 5.84 acres for the new wing.

"On balance, the benefits of SOAR certainly outweigh the costs," Bennett said. "This is the price that you have to weigh against the 3,400 homes that citizens of Moorpark were able to stop because of SOAR."

As part of the SOAR campaign, Moorpark voters overturned City Council approval of the huge Messenger project that would have increased the city's size by 50%.

"The City Council voted for it 4-1, and then 70% of the citizens voted against it," Bennett said. "That's the benefit of SOAR."

Even some of those who opposed SOAR originally and have complained about its effect on St. Joseph's say they would hesitate to back a change in the initiative.

Former Ventura Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures said she now backs the measure because voters support it.

"I think it's most unfortunate that a greatly needed [nursing home] expansion must go to the voters in the entire county. Voters in Simi tell me they don't really understand it and don't know why they should be voting on it," Measures said.

"It's certainly a very costly deficiency in SOAR," she said. "But that's what the voters have asked for, and I respect the will of the public."

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