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Ventura County

Ojai Seeks to Take Traffic Initiative Off the Fall Ballot

Law: Measure that would allow residents to decide on some developments is confusing and illegal, city says. Backers argue voters should have say.

June 01, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers for the city of Ojai urged a judge Friday to pull a controversial traffic initiative from the November ballot, arguing that the measure confuses voters and violates state law.

But an attorney representing environmentalists backing the measure argued that the city's complaints should be heard after the election, not before, and asked the court not to interfere.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh took the matter under consideration and said he would issue a written decision by the end of next week.

"Put it on the ballot," attorney Kate Neiswender, who represents Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, said after the hearing. "If the voters want it, great. If not, then this is moot."

As proposed, the so-called Ojai Traffic Initiative would give city voters, not elected officials, the authority to approve or reject development projects that would increase traffic on the already-congested highways winding into the Ojai Valley.

Proponents say the measure reaffirms existing standards for the acceptable number of car trips on those highways and prevents city leaders from approving projects in which traffic congestion cannot be mitigated.

But city officials say the measure is deceptive and, if approved, would effectively create a moratorium on growth in Ojai.

"It is a concerted effort by a small group of people to stop housing [construction] in Ojai," said attorney Katherine Stone, who represents the city in its effort to remove the measure from the ballot. "This group is trying to shut people out."

Stone and Ojai City Atty. Monte Widders argue the measure is an illegal attempt to block affordable housing, and runs counter to state mandates that say cities must provide low-income housing.

Widders further argued that backers of the measure failed to include the full 33-page text of the city's traffic plan when they circulated petitions, as required by law.

But Neiswender told the judge that relevant portions of the plan to be changed by the initiative were included in the materials circulated by signature gatherers. She said the full text of the document only would have confused voters.

As for the city's other arguments, Neiswender said many turn on issues that are in dispute and require research that cannot be completed before the June 14 deadline for printing the fall ballot. Those issues can be taken up after the election, she said.

Neiswender said that the city waited seven months before challenging the measure in court. The initiative was certified for the ballot in August, but the city's lawsuit was not filed until March.

Questioned about the delay by the judge, Stone said lawyers had their hands full with lawsuits filed by Citizens to Preserve the Ojai over a proposed luxury housing development in downtown Ojai.

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