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Study Assails Ventura County Sprawl

The survey, which ranks the region ninth in the nation, points to a lack of prosperous city downtowns. But it wasn't all bad news.

October 18, 2002|Scott Gold and Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writers

A lack of town centers makes Ventura County one of the most sprawling areas in the nation, according to a new study of unchecked suburban growth.

The Riverside-San Bernardino area scored highest on the study's "sprawlometer" that gauged how well housing, jobs and roadways fit together in 83 metropolitan areas.

Billed as the first scientific survey of "urban sprawl," the three-year study concludes that in one critical way -- the lack of prosperous city downtowns -- Ventura County has fallen short. The project was carried out by researchers at Rutgers and Cornell universities.

As thousands of families have moved out of big cities in search of cheaper homes, cleaner air and safer streets, the study concludes, they have found themselves in regions where schools and roads cannot keep up with the number of new residents -- in a sea of strip malls and chain restaurants.

The study ranked Ventura County as the nation's ninth most sprawling area, but the report wasn't all bad news.

"The funny thing is, I think it shows us that although we're in the top 10 nationally, we're doing better than we think," said Bill Fulton, a Ventura resident and a national planning expert.

The county's neighborhoods are fairly compact and its streets relatively easy to get to and navigate. The county has an especially healthy mix of homes, jobs and services. What is lacking in Ventura County, and in most of California's suburban areas, is a core, the study found.

"We have density, but we don't have centeredness," Fulton said. And creating centers of activity -- for commerce, government, culture -- is "one of the most difficult things to create after the fact," he said.

Camarillo, where Peter and Toni La Joy live, has one of Ventura County's more defined town centers. But it's no Chicago, where the couple grew up.

"I'd like to sell everything and move back to Chicago," Toni said Thursday, as she and her husband toured a tract home in Oxnard. "I love the city. I love the shopping. And I have all my family there."

Oxnard is "sprawl city," Peter said.

The study was released by a Washington coalition of organizations interested in growth, known as Smart Growth America.

It concluded that the Inland Empire -- one of the nation's largest experiments in megasuburbia -- has failed most miserably in clustering its growth.

The report faulted the Inland Empire for everything from its lack of economic and social cores -- two-thirds of the massive region lives at least 10 miles from a central business district -- to a haphazard, poorly connected road system that makes walking and bicycling perilous.

Even the region's high number of traffic fatalities -- 49 of every 100,000 people die each year in car crashes -- is due to endless hours spent negotiating highways and packed, high-speed arterials, the study concluded.

Barbara McCann, a spokeswoman for Smart Growth America, said the Inland Empire fits the dreaded metropolitan tag: "There is no 'there' there."

Home building and economic development organizations, which have defeated several recent attempts to limit growth in the Inland Empire, disputed the results of the study.

"I would call it a blatant joke," said Borre Winckel, executive director of the Building Industry Assn.'s Riverside County chapter. "

Elsewhere in California, the Los Angeles-Long Beach, San Diego and Sacramento metropolitan regions all registered slightly better than average on the "sprawlometer."

Such growth is difficult to measure, the researchers said. It is akin, they said, to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous view on pornography -- it's hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Previous studies have typically used limited and subjective data to analyze it, often relying almost entirely on density as their primary yardstick.

In the new study, researchers spent three years developing a four-category measure of sprawl. In 83 metropolitan regions representing half the nation's population, the researchers used 22 demographic databases to calibrate density of development: the blend of homes, jobs and services; the accessibility of streets, and the strength of downtown areas and other "activity centers."

The Riverside-San Bernardino region scored poorly in every category except density of development, in which the region was below average -- a vestige of older developments that featured larger lots.

The result: Riverside-San Bernardino scored 14.2 on the "sprawlometer." Ventura County scored 75.1. A score of 100 is average, researchers said, and the lower the score, the worse the attendant problems. The Inland Empire was the only metropolitan area that scored lower than 45. It far outpaced the second- and third-place finishers, both in North Carolina.

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