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Growth Plans Often Ignored

A Ventura County study shows developers rarely build as many dwellings as official policies allow.

May 23, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Public pressure and changing housing markets are prompting cities in Ventura County to ignore their own long-range plans for development and build far fewer dwellings than allowed, a trend that could cause a severe housing shortage by 2020, a new study of local growth patterns has found.

The study, to be released today, concludes that so-called general plans -- the supposed blueprints for city growth -- fail to reflect political and market realities and are not reliable predictors of how many homes will probably be built within 10 local cities.

"We are learning that you can't freeze-dry a city and think that a general plan written in the 1990s provides an accurate picture of what that city will look like in 2020," said planner Bill Fulton, co-author of the study and president of Solimar Research Group in Ventura.

That finding is significant because it suggests that cities in Ventura County, with some of the nation's strictest anti-sprawl laws, need to change the way they consider and approve new housing projects or they could run out of developable land much sooner than government planners have forecast.

The new study, co-authored by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, augments a December 2001 report that found local housing projects are routinely approved with 55% to 80% of the dwellings that their cities' general plans would allow.

This means that instead of 50,000 to 60,000 dwellings anticipated in city planning documents, chances are that just 30,000 or so will be built within city boundaries that were approved by local voters during growth-control campaigns in the 1990s.

That would result in build-out of half of the county's cities by 2010 and a severe countywide housing shortage by 2020, when most Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources laws expire, said the study.

The detailed follow-up study has found that housing projects are smaller than anticipated, partly because cities allow developers to gear their projects to a market that favors fewer houses per acre, neighbors oppose higher-density projects and other special complications.

Both studies were funded by the James Irvine Foundation and the California Assn. of Realtors.

"The biggest thing we found was that a general plan often does not reflect either the marketplace or political reality," Fulton said. "Years after a general plan is done, developers come in and propose something they think they can sell [regardless of the general plan]."

At the same time, project neighbors usually have no idea what the city's general plan calls for. And they rally against high-density projects even if they are allowed by the plans.

As a solution, the new report recommends wide-scale use of so-called specific plans for large developments. That process permits cities, developers and the public to hash out in great detail all elements of a plan, thus creating a true master plan that will be followed, usually within five years, instead of an oblique general plan that is commonly ignored.

"By focusing on specific plans, a city's policies are less likely to be a compromise that nobody likes," Fulton said.

Everett Millais, executive officer of the county Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency that oversees city annexations, said use of specific plans has gained popularity in recent years because they resolve all key issues of a project just before it is to be built.

"It definitely does give more predictability to the growth process to things like density and design -- how things are really going to happen," Millais said.

RiverPark in Oxnard, the largest housing-and-business development in county history, is a good example of how a giant new project can be considered and approved as a specific plan just before construction begins, Millais said.

Issues surrounding the project, with 2,800 dwellings and more than 2 million square feet of commercial space, were resolved within three years and construction is expected to begin this year or next.

"It has a 15-year time frame," Millais said. "But it is very specific -- where the schools go and when they will be built, what's in each phase and who will pay for it."

The new Solimar-Reason report considered the dynamics of six Ventura County housing projects to determine why cities approve lower-density projects than planned. Those projects are Riverwalk in Fillmore, Nichols Ranch in Ventura, Vintage at the Rose in Oxnard, Meadows at Mission Oaks in Camarillo, Rancho Madera in Simi Valley and a tract of the giant Dos Vientos Ranch project in Thousand Oaks.

Following closely after the SOAR votes in each city, both Riverwalk and Nichols Ranch simply did not have the political or community support to survive as first proposed, and the density of each was slashed.

The Camarillo project lost density because of legal complications with construction of attached condominiums, and density in Simi Valley was lowered because of market demand.

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