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Ventura County

The Future Is Now in Santa Paula

Election day is looming large for the small farming community. Residents will decide both how their town is governed and developed.

October 26, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

It is one of the biggest political fights ever to hit Santa Paula, a watershed election that could shape the small farm town's future and restore some of the glories of years past.

On Nov. 5, voters could install a new City Council majority, open the door to large-scale development in remote Adams Canyon and revolutionize the city's electoral process by agreeing to carve the mostly Latino community into five voting districts.

But all seven candidates agree there could be even more at stake.

They say the election is about reversing the decline of a town once known as a thriving business and cultural center, a place where rows of stately Victorian homes and a picturesque Main Street still beckon Hollywood filmmakers seeking to re-create a slice of small-town America.

The election is also about boosting Santa Paula's sagging economy, which is reflected in its timeworn downtown. It is about stemming a rising tide of crime -- Santa Paula was one of the few Ventura County cities where crime was up last year, surging nearly 13% because of sharp increases in robbery and theft.

And it is about smoothing tensions, largely divided along racial lines, that resulted two years ago in a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the city's at-large voting system had perpetuated racial discrimination by preventing Latino candidates from being elected to the City Council.

City leaders agreed last year to a settlement that included letting voters decide whether to elect council members by district.

Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa, a longtime advocate for ethnic diversity in Santa Paula government and the only Latino on the City Council when the federal lawsuit was filed, is running for reelection as a write-in candidate because she missed a filing deadline for council incumbents.

Espinosa is the only one of the seven candidates who favors district elections.

But all the candidates agree that the city needs to rejuvenate its downtown, build a stronger tax base and provide more housing for residents of all incomes.

They differ, however, on how to achieve those goals, splitting most noticeably into two camps over Measure F, an initiative that would change the city's growth boundary, clearing the way for development of up to 2,250 homes and condominiums in Adams Canyon northwest of the city.

Incumbent Rick Cook and candidates Al Escoto and Rita Graham support the measure, arguing that it is the best way to pull Santa Paula out of an economic nose dive that has made it difficult to pay police officers competitive salaries and provide recreational activities for children.

Espinosa and candidates Gabino Aguirre, Mary Ann Krause and John Wisda oppose the initiative, saying the best way to jolt Santa Paula out of economic stagnation is to invest in the city core.

"If Measure F passes, it will totally change the character of Santa Paula," said Aguirre, 56, a 30-year resident of the city and principal at the continuation high school in Moorpark.

"A lot of Ventura County seems to be up for grabs development-wise," Aguirre added. "But I don't really see that Santa Paula needs to go that way. I think there's plenty of room for growth within the city."

Aguirre said that one of his first priorities would be to embark on a citywide "visioning process," gathering opinions from residents and community groups to create a blueprint for how Santa Paula should look decades from now.

He also favors creating a mix of multistory shops and housing units in and around the city's downtown.

"Santa Paula, just like other small towns throughout the country, is suffering from neglect," Aguirre said. "When I look down the road, I think we are going to be the island in a sea of development and that island is going to attract a lot of people."

Cook, 52, said he favors Measure F because it is the best way to generate money needed to improve parks, public safety and other city services. The lifelong Santa Paula resident was elected to the council four years ago and served on the Planning Commission five years before that.

"If Measure F doesn't pass, Santa Paula will just stay like it is, because we have no money," said Cook, a retired Santa Paula police officer who now works as an investigator with the Ventura County public defender's office.

He notes that a yes vote on Measure F doesn't approve development in Adams Canyon but does allow city leaders to begin considering development options. However, he said that building in the canyon northwest of Santa Paula could bring good jobs, lure new industry, increase the city's tax base and cure a variety of ills.

"The city really is at a crossroads," Cook said. "If the wrong people get elected, our city will be remembered as what used to be a nice town but now is a ghost town."

Escoto, 62, also supports Measure F, saying it fits into a larger plan he has for revitalizing the downtown, generating jobs and recruiting and retaining businesses.

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