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Voters Are Key to Rural Past's Future

Ventura County ballot measure would fund an effort to keep sprawl at bay in unspoiled areas.

June 20, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Standing at the foot of brush-covered hills that separate Thousand Oaks from the ocean, Julie Schiowitz sees a line in the sand.

On one side is the largest housing development ever built in the city and on the other is a towering ridge marking the western boundary of a former ranch. The untouched range serves as a passageway for mountain lions, deer and other wildlife into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

"This is sacred," Schiowitz said, walking a two-lane road with 2,300-home Dos Vientos Estates to the east and undeveloped hills to the west. "This road delineates the boundary for suburban sprawl. Once we start building here, where will it stop?"

Schiowitz and scores of other preservationists in Ventura County say the region is on the brink of losing its last unspoiled canyons, hills and river banks to development. Without swift intervention, they warn, these pastoral landscapes, reminders of the region's agrarian past, will disappear forever.

Conservationists are pinning their hopes on a countywide ballot measure in November that would raise millions of dollars to preserve open space through a 1/4-cent sales tax increase. The current local tax is 7.25%.

But whether the proposal will fly with tax-averse voters remains to be seen. Some view it as an admirable but unrealistic notion at a time of budget cuts and rising energy costs. Others see it as a chance to take a final stand against decades of nonstop growth in Southern California.

Supporters say the measure is a natural extension of the landmark Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiative approved by voters in 1995 that gave Ventura County some of the strictest anti-sprawl laws in the nation.

But a rival proposal that would raise millions of dollars to ease traffic congestion through a 1/2-cent sales tax increase might have a better chance of passage, one political expert said. The transportation measure will benefit from the financial support of deep-pocketed businesses, said Herb Gooch, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. "My sense is that it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get them both passed," he said. "Traffic may have an easier time than the other because business groups are behind it, and traffic is a hot-button issue right now."

The open-space preservation measure would create a special district to administer the $25 million that would be raised each year for a decade. The money would largely be used to buy property outright or acquire a landowner's development rights.

Some sites identified by a citizens advisory committee as priorities for funding are Mt. Clef Ridge and Broome Ranch in Thousand Oaks, Tierra Rejada Valley and North Village Park in Moorpark, Alamos Canyon in Simi Valley, Ormond Beach in Oxnard, Adams Canyon in Santa Paula, the Ventura hillsides and the banks of the Ventura River.

Many are already designated for development, but the owners are willing to sell, said county Supervisor Linda Parks, an active proponent of the measure. The only obstacle, she said, is money.

Funds raised by the tax would be distributed evenly among three designated regions in the county, said Karen Schmidt, a member of an advisory group that worked to place the measure on the ballot.

The tax could provide seed money to bolster applications for matching grants from both private and public agencies, supporters say. That is what Jim Engle of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy hopes to do with any funds he might receive to help restore the 16-mile-long Ventura River, which extends from Ojai to the Pacific Ocean. His group is working to acquire land or development rights along the river and to raze Matilija Dam, which is blocking the migration of southern steelhead trout and preventing county beaches from being replenished with sand.

"We've raised close to $4 million from individual donors, but the tax money can be a catalyst for state and federal grants," Engle said.

Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan said the acquisition of development rights combined with existing tax breaks for wildlife preservation would provide powerful incentives for landowners not to build on the river's banks.

A top priority for Ventura River preservationists would be to buy and dismantle a recreational vehicle park visible from the Ventura Freeway that sits in the riverbed near the waterway's mouth.

If the tax measure were approved, conservationists would also try to buy 18,620 undeveloped acres that face the ocean or at least their development rights, said Brooke Ashworth, chairman of the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy.

Voters defeated a proposal to build on the city's hillsides two years ago, but "there's always the threat of development," Ashworth said.

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