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Ventura County

Growth a Costly Ballot Issue

Development: Measures in Ventura, Santa Paula and Simi Valley pit landowners and builders against activists in the first major challenges to county's SOAR laws.


Landowners and developers have poured $1.5 million into a trio of Ventura County ballot measures that pit them against environmentalists and citizen activists in the ongoing war over suburban sprawl.

In Ventura, Santa Paula and Simi Valley, development interests are setting spending records on initiative campaigns that would define the boundaries of growth in the three cities for decades to come.

Family landowners who want to build 1,390 homes in the rugged canyons and hillsides overlooking Ventura have spent the most--about $905,300--since the beginning of the year, according to campaign finance statements filed this week.

In Santa Paula, an Arizona-based developer has spent about $425,000 backing one of the initiatives in hopes of moving the city's growth boundary to clear the way for up to 2,250 homes.

And in Simi Valley, landowners and business boosters have shelled out $167,000 fighting an initiative that would further restrict growth just outside the city's boundaries.

Meanwhile, the countywide slow-growth group Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources has spent just $56,600 on all three campaigns since the beginning of the year.

The huge discrepancies illustrate the significance of the measures, which are the first major challenges to the strict growth-control measures passed by county voters in 1995, said Herb Gooch, political science chairman at Cal Lutheran University.

"It may be that the lesson for SOAR is, 'Watch out what you accomplish lest you end up having to play in a game with higher stakes,' " Gooch said. "One side has a very vested interest in a narrow issue and has large financial resources."

SOAR has raised about $125,000 since Jan. 1, largely from individual contributions of $100 or less. Other citizen committees that have joined the fight against Ventura's Measure A and Santa Paula's Measure F have raised an additional $5,300, most of which was spent on yard signs and postage.

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, SOAR's chief spokesman, said it has been a daunting challenge to get the group's message out as deep-pocketed companies have saturated local airwaves and swamped mailboxes with campaign material.

"It should alert the public that some people are going to make some huge profits," Bennett said. "Knowing those motives may help you to analyze the credibility of their argument."

But critics say Bennett and his supporters have scared the public with misleading information. As a result, initiative proponents have to spend more money working to debunk the myths, they said.

"Something may be a complete lie, but it scares the uneducated voter," said Greg Boyd, who is leading the effort to pass Measure F in Santa Paula on behalf of Arizona-based Pinnacle Development Corp.

"You have to defend this at every step along the way so the voter can make the right decision," Boyd said.

Margaret Merryman, spokeswoman for the pro-Measure A campaign in Ventura, said SOAR may be able to spend less because its message is simple: No development.

Also, Lloyd Properties, which has owned the hillside land for more than 100 years, wants to donate 3,050 acres of it to the public as open space, said Merryman. "It's important to the families, it's important to the community and it's our only shot."

The campaign statements, which cover spending through Sept. 30, show that Ventura's Measure A and Santa Paula's Measure F are being bankrolled totally by the landowners who would benefit from their passage.

Expenditures range from rent on campaign offices to high-priced public relations consultants and pollsters.

In Simi Valley, the No on Measure B campaign has taken donations from a variety of real estate interests, including $77,316 in service contributions from Unocal Corp. and $15,000 from Greenpark Ranch, LLC.

Unocal, which owns a 2,400-acre parcel known as Alamos Canyon, has proposed building a large industrial business park and 1,600 homes on the land. Greenpark Ranch owns Runkle Canyon, where 550 homes are proposed.

If Measure B passes, the City Council could not approve any development on either property without a vote of the public.

SOAR's largest campaign donation was $5,000, which it received from actor Larry Hagman, who lives in Ojai, and Ventura's Christopher Albrecht, president of HBO Original Programming.

The grass-roots group may be having an especially difficult time raising money this campaign season because of a general lack of political interest among many voters and a sagging economy, Gooch said.

Across the state, he said, candidates and organizations that rely on support from individuals are struggling to raise funds.

That only widens the gap between what is being spent by developers and other corporations.

The unusual thing for Ventura County, Gooch said, is to see developers so unabashed in their financing of an election campaign.

"They don't seem to have any embarrassment about it," he said. "They're going right for the jugular."

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