Declaring protection of Ventura County's open spaces a priority, the Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to add a conservation tax measure to what is shaping up to be a crowded November ballot.
Though it could face competition from other tax measures, supervisors said it would be unwise to delay placing an open space initiative before voters. Momentum to permanently conserve lands is at a peak as residents look for a long-term answer to suburban sprawl, board members said.
"Not that long ago, Orange County and Ventura County had the same population," said board Chairman Steve Bennett. "Now Orange County has 3 million people and Ventura County has 800,000, and that's because protection of open space is a core value of our citizens."
While agreeing to put the measure on the ballot, supervisors won't decide until May 11 what kind of tax they will ask voters to approve. Among the funding options are a 1/4-cent special sales tax increase or a 1/2-cent general sales tax increase that would give supervisors more discretion on how the money is spent.
Both would be in place for 10 years.
A citizens' advisory group is recommending the 1/4-cent special tax, which would require a two-thirds vote for approval. A general sales tax can be passed with a simple majority.
Supervisors last month authorized a voter poll to test the popularity of a general sales tax increase. The results will be made public May 11.
A separate poll released last week showed that voters would likely reject a 1/2-cent sales tax increase if it were used to pay for both conservation and transportation projects.
Supervisors had commissioned that survey in the hopes of fending off a rival ballot measure proposed by the Ventura County Transportation Commission to pay for freeway and road improvements.
On Tuesday, Bennett acknowledged that the hybrid tax option had been rejected. But he and other supervisors expressed strong support for moving ahead with a tax measure dedicated to buying up open space and farmlands.
Though Ventura County already has strong growth restrictions, those laws will begin to expire in 15 years. Proponents of the open space district see it as a long-term successor to the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources anti-sprawl laws.
Supervisor John Flynn, who first proposed a conservation district six years ago, said voters in 1998 indicated they would support such a district. Since then, the county has had to pass up several conservation grant opportunities because it had no matching funds to offer.
"We have an obligation to fulfill the advice that the people gave to us," Flynn said. "It's time to move forward."
November's presidential election ballot is expected to include at least a dozen state initiatives as legislators turn to voters for guidance in solving the state's budget crisis. The possible addition of two local countywide tax measures could frustrate voters, said Supervisor Judy Mikels.
"We have significant issues facing local government ... and I'm very nervous about this [open space] tax," Mikels said.
But Supervisor Kathy Long said it would be up to voters to set priorities.
"I trust the voters," Long said. "Whether we have 15 or 20 measures on the ballot, the voters will be able to say what they want."
Several speakers also voiced strong backing for the district's formation.
"New concrete roads may solve immediate needs, but will it make life better?" asked Bill Miley of Ojai. "Ten, 20, 30 years from now, I don't think so."
The measure has the backing of an unlikely coalition of farmers, business leaders, environmentalists and citizens' tax representatives. The group met for two years before agreeing on the basics of the district's funding and governance.
They are in a good position to win broad support for the measure's success, speakers said.
"The timing will never be perfect," said Karen Schmidt, executive director of SOAR. "But it will never be a better time."