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Where Does Simi Draw the Line?

Growth: Measure B backers say the '98 anti-sprawl law doesn't go far enough. Officials feel betrayed.


When the first anti-sprawl initiative was proposed in Simi Valley in 1998, then-Mayor Greg Stratton did what he thought was best for his city. He voted for it.

Now, slow-growth advocates want another crack at the city's growth-control law, hoping to give voters a say over two proposed housing developments in neighboring canyons.

While Stratton once helped activists draw urban growth boundaries around his city, he is now busy drawing battle lines.

"We sat with them and figured this out, and now they're saying four years later, 'We had our fingers crossed,' " said Stratton, who is retired from the council and is heading up the campaign to defeat Measure B. "I don't like to do business like that. You work with someone, and you would think that meant you had an understanding."

Proponents of the measure, however, don't see it that way.

Politics is an evolving process, they say, and what seemed like a good growth boundary in 1998 is no longer good enough in 2002.

"We didn't realize the full scope of the development plans," said Kevin Conville, spokesman for the Simi Valley group backing the initiative. "We've been asked continually why we weren't more aggressive the first time around."

Simi Valley's was one of four growth-control measures--known as the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives--that were negotiated and placed on local ballots four years ago. The ordinances require voter approval before a city can annex land for development.

Measure B is an attempt to reclaim some of the land that could be developed under Simi Valley's existing ordinance, said Bill Fulton, a Ventura-based regional planning expert.

SOAR leaders predict that Simi Valley won't be the last city to attempt such a change as sentiment against urban sprawl continues to grow throughout Ventura County. The Simi Valley initiative is intended to give voters more latitude about future growth.

"SOAR created a perception that people could vote on more things than the law actually allowed," said Richard Francis, an Oxnard attorney who wrote most of the SOAR laws passed in the county since 1995. "We're now trying to make the law conform with those perceptions."

Driving the movement in Simi Valley, proponents say, is the public's desire to vote on two major development proposals: a 1,600-home project on 2,439 acres of land in upper Alamos Canyon owned by Unocal Corp. and a 550-unit project in Runkle Canyon that includes affordable housing for seniors.

Both pieces of land are outside of city limits but within its growth boundary, meaning that the projects require only City Council approval.

Simi Valley leaders, most of whom are conservative Republicans with business backgrounds, already have given both developers preliminary approval to continue moving ahead with their plans.

Measure B would halt that process, prohibiting development on any land adjacent to the growth boundary, including the Unocal and Runkle projects--without first getting the approval of voters in Simi Valley.

Slow-growth advocates in Simi are most concerned about the Unocal plan, not only because of the scope of the project but also because they see the Alamos Canyon land as valuable open space.

The land, just north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway, is a patchwork of scrub-covered hills, oak-studded valleys and canyons. Unocal is proposing to build a 399-acre industrial business park, 42-acre cemetery and a residential development including as many as 1,600 homes in the canyon.

Plans also call for saving about 1,400 acres of open space, city officials said.

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

But those who oppose Measure B--including all five council members, the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, the city school district and park district officials--say both the Unocal and Runkle projects are key to ensuring the city's success as a vibrant, job-rich community over the next 20 years.

"That was the next growth area," said Mayor Bill Davis, who said he feels betrayed by the new SOAR measure. "You have state guidelines that say you must build your fair share of housing, and we could not even get close to reaching those numbers if these two pieces of property go away."

Opponents also argue that voters should be aware that Measure B could backfire and result in the kind of ugly development that no one wants.

The argument is that changing the growth boundary would encourage developers to bypass the City Council entirely and go to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

Although the land may be zoned as open space by the county, that designation doesn't stop other uses, including ranchette-style homes, a mining operation or even a landfill or jail, said Stratton.

So, if Measure B passes and a proposed subdivision is shot down by voters, those other uses may become more attractive to landowners, Stratton said.

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