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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON HILLSIDE
LAND USE

The Road to Consensus

Good Decisions Require Good Information; a Mapping Technique Can Help

November 26, 2000|CHRIS ROBERTS and MIKE ZIELSDORF

Whether and how to develop Ventura's hillsides--the city's most volatile high-impact land use topic--will again be up for discussion Wednesday night at the Ventura Mission. This is the second in a series of community workshops on the issue. The goal? To plan how Ventura's hills will look in perpetuity.

The first workshop, in October, was a powerful next step for the city's visioning process. More than 300 highly charged residents met with the families that have owned land in the hills for more than a century. The atmosphere was intense as landowners expressed their desire to build homes and other community members articulated varying levels of support, concern and opposition. Some argued that Ventura needs housing and that the hills are the right place for it. Others expressed skepticism that the hills can retain their natural beauty with streets and homes winding through them.

That meeting started an honest dialogue. Discussion was characterized by respect for differing ideas--a continuation of the cooperation that characterized last year's visioning process.

Many speakers stressed that Ventura's hills, like the ocean, establish the natural setting that is a part of our daily lives. Landowners reached out for support of development as they shared their history of 120 years of land stewardship.

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A good plan would result in safer, environmentally restored hills that look even better than they do now. These hills would be more accessible so that we can hike and bike in them as well as look at them.

For the workshops to shape that future, two things are necessary:

* An agenda that considers all options.

* Enough information so that workshop participants can assess how various alternatives would impact the community.

An effort to build consensus is more likely to succeed if we assume that all options are possible. One group seems to want the hills to remain just as they are. The costs and benefits of this option should be assessed along with all the other options.

At the first workshop, the audience seemed to say, "We want to meet with you [the owners] to work this out, but we do not want to be led through a series of public workshops to a predetermined solution." An open agenda would focus on a plan to meet the needs of the owners and the community. Such an orientation would establish trust. An agenda free from predetermined outcomes would mean a variety of acceptable outcomes could be studied and compared to find the best community solution.

Good decisions are based on good information as well as trust. The city has information and maps that could be used to better understand the hills. The owners' consultant team could use this information two ways. The maps could convey important geographic and environmental conditions. They also could be used to survey community feelings about what areas or places are held most sacred. It may well be that the community feels more strongly about preserving the ridgelines and drainage ways than about arroyos and low-sloping areas that are hidden from view.

Right now, nobody knows what the impact of 2,000 or even 200 homes would be. We can't tell how it would impact city services or traffic. We don't know how it would impact wildlife or views of the hills.

Much of the geographic and environmental information that could help us understand the hills already exists and is available. It is in a computerized map format called GIS, for geographic information system. GIS maps are easy to understand. They allow the user to highlight critical information, such as what would be visible from where. Many communities have used this method to facilitate workshops.

The GIS map pictured is a viewshed analysis for a historic site in Virginia. Such a map could be produced to analyze hillside views here in Ventura. Here is how it works: The dots show what is visible from the center of the circle--the viewing location--near the top of the map. Here in Ventura, such a map could be used to show which proposed hillside building areas would be visible from any location in the city.

GIS maps often describe more than geography and environment conditions. Community attitudes and cultural conditions can also be mapped.

Areas such as Two Trees, the major ridges and arroyos and the parks would probably be held in high esteem. If workshop participants were given maps to mark their most sacred places, then the design team could use this information to protect and improve those areas held most dear by the community. Other areas, such as the eroded gullies along Foothill Boulevard and the landslide areas on the West Side, would get few marks for preservation.

Once tabulated, such maps would clearly identify the city's most sacred hillside areas--as defined by the community. These maps would help the community clarify its attitudes.

The hillside workshops are taking place because the owners and the community have made good decisions over the years. The community long ago decided to grow slowly and carefully.

This year, property owners decided to begin a community-oriented planning process that will result in a plan for this geographic and visual resource. It is my prayer that all the stakeholders--residents, owners, design consultants, environmentalists and builders--will have the strength of character to build consensus on this critical decision.

The city must offer all the information it has to the process. The owners should open themselves to all options. As a community, we must have the wisdom to compromise with one another without compromising the hills.

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Chris Roberts owns Pacific Coast Land Design, a landscape architecture and planning firm in Ventura. He lived in the Skyline Drive tract for many years. Mike Zielsdorf is a senior landscape architecture student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is doing a viewshed model for the city of Ventura as a senior project.

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