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Ventura County | LOCAL CONTESTS

Growth Seems to Be the Hot Issue in Ventura County

October 27, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Voting in sweeping restrictions over growth in the last few years, Ventura County residents opted to bypass their elected officials and seize control of major decisions on development.

On Nov. 5, they will flex their newfound muscle in a big way for the first time.

Voters will also choose a raft of city council members, school board leaders and legislators, but the hottest items on the ballot focus on massive new neighborhoods proposed in Ventura, Simi Valley and Santa Paula.

In addition, residents of Ojai will decide on tough limits on the traffic that growth there would generate.

As developers have poured more than $1.5 million into their advertising campaigns, less-richly funded citizens' groups have countered with phone campaigns, public-access TV spots and yard signs. By contrast, most of the races for local office have been tepid, spurring comparatively little spending or voter interest.

On top of that, the state's recent, once-a-decade redistricting has made most incumbents in both the Legislature and Congress even more secure.

"This is like a stealth election," said Herb Gooch, a political analyst and professor of government at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. "There isn't much political fervor up and down the state, and in Ventura County, you don't have exciting candidacies. The turnout is apt to be very low, so whoever can best organize on the ground is liable to do well."

Voters in nine of the county's 10 cities will select council members. Seats on 12 of the county's school boards also will be up for grabs. Three positions are available on the Ventura County Community College District board, a group that was widely criticized in a financial scandal involving former Chancellor Philip Westin.

On the state and federal levels, challengers are trying to unseat four Assembly members and two members of Congress.

But for all the precinct-walking and candidate forum sound bites, the election seems to be as much about a few rugged patches of sage-studded ground as anything.

In 1998, county voters overwhelmingly passed the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measure -- a first-in-the-nation law mandating public approval to rezone farmland for development. Similar measures have been passed in nearly all of the county's cities, but this is the first time such laws have faced a significant test.

In Ventura, Measure A would allow 1,390 homes in six neighborhoods spread over the hillsides and canyons that serve as a backdrop for the city. In return, the owners of the land would give a land trust 80% of their property -- some 3,000 acres of permanently protected open space, which would be laced with hiking trails.

The proposal from Lloyd Properties, a family partnership behind the measure, has sparked bitter personal attacks and a host of dramatically conflicting claims. Supporters are pitching the project, which would be built over 15 to 20 years, as environmentally sensitive and visually appealing. Opponents contend it would blight the hillsides with ticky-tacky subdivisions and cause traffic nightmares on the narrow roads nearby.

Critics also contend that approval would give developers a blank check because they have yet to complete required environmental and financial studies. The landowners counter that their plans still would need approval by the city before construction could begin. City officials agree with the landowners.

Cal Lutheran's Gooch said low voter participation might favor opponents of Measure A.

"The people opposed are very passionate," he said, "and with a low turnout, their small numbers will be magnified. And absentees could be one-third of the vote; these tend to be people who have been around the longest and are the most stable. And that could give the edge to the anti-development side."

In Simi Valley, Measure B would shrink the area in which growth could occur, effectively killing proposals for 1,600 homes and an industrial business park in Alamos Canyon just north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway. It also would stop a 550-unit development in Runkle Canyon.

Supporters of the measure argue against the developments on environmental grounds.

"What our community should be looking at for Alamos Canyon is a site for a regional park, not a huge commercial and industrial development," said Kevin Conville. "It's sick."

But opponents contend that the measure would unfairly change the SOAR boundaries approved by voters in 1998.

"Four years ago they came up with a line that everyone could live with, allowing the city to grow and prosper and also giving the SOAR folks some confidence," said Rondi Guthrie, an official with the California Building Industry Assn.'s local branch. "Now they're trying to tighten it. If it passes here, then no doubt they'll move on to the next city."

In Santa Paula, Measure F would effectively double the city's area, allowing construction of 1,980 homes, 180 condominiums, two schools, hotels and a shopping center in outlying Adams Canyon, now mostly grazing land.

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