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Looming Build-Out Leaves Ventura at a Crossroads

A citizens panel urges home construction on farm and grazing land to meet high demand, but the plans promise to be a hard sell.

November 03, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Trying to preserve the small-town character of a city nestled between the ocean and rolling hillsides, Ventura residents have embraced some of the toughest growth-control laws in California in recent years.

But faced with a slow economy and skyrocketing housing costs, a citizens committee is now eyeing a swath of grazing land outside the city limits for potential expansion.

Specifically, the 19-member panel is urging the city to expand its growth boundaries northward to include 814 acres along Canada Larga Road for possible construction of 1,300 homes and industrial and retail space.

The committee recently added Canada Larga to a list of potential expansion areas as it finalized recommendations to the city's Comprehensive Plan, a state-mandated blueprint for future development that Ventura is in the process of updating.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Ventura growth map -- A map accompanying an article on growth in Ventura that ran in some editions of Monday's California section misidentified the community north of Canada Larga Road. The area is Casitas Springs, not Ojai.

The committee's report, which culminates 2 1/2 years of discussion and research, states that the city is almost entirely built out, leaving little vacant land for development at a time when soaring housing costs threaten to deter businesses looking to expand or relocate.

As a result, the report recommends building higher-density housing and redeveloping some areas. It also identifies five sites for possible expansion over the next quarter century.

Canada Larga is the largest of those sites and the only one not subject to growth-control laws. The other four, all on farmland, are protected by the city's 1995 Save Our Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, initiative, which prohibits development on agricultural land without voter approval.

The Planning Commission is expected to consider the recommendations at this Tuesday's meeting. The City Council could take up the matter next year.

At this point, there are no specific development plans, and city leaders are being asked only to decide where Ventura should direct its future growth.

But for many residents, the mere suggestion of building homes on grazing land or lemon orchards could raise concerns. Others may balk at the idea of high-density apartments and condos in their neighborhoods.

"We know there are really tough challenges ahead for the city in terms of how it is going to grow," said Lisa Porras, one of three city planners working on the Comprehensive Plan update.

"Should we focus on expansion areas, or should we focus more on infill, or both?"

The issue comes at a critical time for Ventura. It is one of the region's oldest cities, built more than a century ago around the historic San Buenaventura Mission, and has a population of 100,916. It has grown more slowly than the county or state in recent years, and business activity is lagging in the face of rising city expenses.

A recent budget analysis found the city did not have enough money to pay for a backlog of maintenance projects for streets, landscaping and other work, and the state budget crisis could make matters worse.

At the same time, housing costs are pricing many in the workforce out of the market. In September, the median price of a home in east Ventura rose to $411,500, according to DataQuick Information Systems, which compiles the statistics from records of sales of new and existing houses and condos.

But the inventory of housing remains tight. According to the committee's report, Ventura's housing stock grew 7% between 1990 and 2000, compared with 14% growth in Thousand Oaks.

Bart Bleuel, an Oxnard attorney and a committee member, said a lack of affordable units and a scant supply of high-end executive housing threatened to drive off businesses and young professionals.

Bleuel, a past president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, said the group polled executives at 12 top companies in the county, and all cited housing as the prime factor in deciding where to locate their operations.

Even without bringing in new business or residents, Bleuel and other committee members said, growth projections suggest that the existing housing supply was not enough to meet future demand.

"We can close the gates on the outside of the city and bring up the drawbridge, eliminate all births and have all our kids move out, and maybe the problem goes away, but that is ridiculous," he said.

"I think most Venturans understand that you have to have some growth to be a healthy community," said Dan Long, a painting contractor who also served on the committee. "Where we do it is the rub."

According to the committee's report, at least 2,568 new dwelling units could be constructed on vacant and underutilized residential land.

Hundreds more could be squeezed onto those sites if the city opted for higher-density development.

An additional 4,992 units could be built if the city changed land-use designations in some areas.

But the greatest number of homes -- 6,861 -- could be built by developing the farmland and grazing pastures identified by the committee for future expansion, the report said.

Planners said the Canada Larga site could accommodate 1,300 homes on 283 acres while preserving 488 acres as parkland.

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