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SOAR Files Suit to Pull Open 80 Plan From Fall Ballot

Ventura: Slow-growth group argues a measure to approve a 1,390-home hillside project is illegal. Proponents say owners want to leave a legacy.

July 17, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Slow-growth advocates filed suit Tuesday to remove a measure from the November ballot that seeks voter approval for a large housing project on Ventura's hillsides.

SOAR Inc. is challenging the constitutionality of the Open 80 Master Plan Act of 2002, which would allow up to 1,390 homes on the rolling hills of sage-scrub and chaparral that serve as a backdrop to the city.

Though SOAR wants voters to weigh in on development issues, this measure steps over the legal limits of the state's initiative process, said Richard Francis, the group's attorney. The measure is not legislation but a development agreement, he said.

Furthermore, the suit filed in Ventura County Superior Court claims the initiative violates a section of the state Constitution that prohibits citizen-sponsored ballot measures from benefiting any specified individual or corporation.

"You can't write a contract that benefits you personally or your company and then slide that in front of the voters," said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, one of the founders of SOAR. "That means no one was there to protect the taxpayers."

The Open 80 plan seeks to build homes on family-owned land north of Ventura's downtown, while dedicating more than 3,000 acres--or 80% of the land--as open space. An initiative that was passed in November prohibits extending city services onto the hillsides without voter approval.

Ventura City Council members sent the Open 80 initiative to the Nov. 5 ballot earlier this month, after a successful petition drive sponsored by the landowners, the pioneering Lloyd and Dabney families.

Doug Halter, a Ventura activist and supporter of the Open 80 plan, accused Bennett of embarking on a "cynical and hypocritical strategy" to stop the project before voters get the chance to speak at the ballot box.

The lawsuit appears to be without merit, he said in a written statement.

"We are concerned that Bennett's real motive for filing the lawsuit is to keep [the measure] off the ballot, thereby preventing the people's right to vote," he said. "We think this is wrong, and we believe the public will see it as wrong."

Bennett denied that the suit is a tactic to stop hillside development, which he said SOAR prefers to building on agricultural land.

He said there are many ways in which project proponents could have complied with both Ventura's growth-control law and the state Constitution.

Had the developer completed an environmental study of the plan and gained City Council approval before giving voters the final say, Bennett said, SOAR would not have challenged that ballot measure.

The group was worried about the precedent the Ventura initiative might set in growth-controlled areas throughout the county, he added.

"Every developer would love to lock in approvals for a project before doing an environmental impact report," Bennett said. "Just because that's what developers want doesn't make it constitutional or appropriate."

Proponents of Open 80 argue that the housing project is not about greedy developers, but landowners who have a long history with the city and want to leave a legacy. The open-space portion of the proposal is a "tremendous gift," Halter said.

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