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Growth issues on the ballot yet again

This time Santa Paula voters face Measure L6 and a slate of candidates evenly split on its merits.

October 28, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

For the third time this year, Santa Paula voters will go to the polls Nov. 7 to help decide the future of the mostly blue-collar town that has struggled to restore its economic vitality.

But this time they will face the testy issue of growth on two fronts.

On the one hand is Measure L6, an initiative that would require a public vote for all development projects larger than 80 acres.

Then there is the City Council election. The eight candidates vying for three seats on the panel are evenly split over the initiative.

Opposing the measure are Mayor Rick Cook, council members Mary Ann Krause and Gabino Aguirre, and challenger Damien Shilo, a firefighter paramedic.

Backing the initiative are challengers Fred Robinson, chief executive of ARC-Ventura County, which serves the developmentally disabled; Ralph Fernandez, a local architect and college professor; Bob Gonzalez, the city's former police chief; and Sergio Hernandez, a quality assurance manager.

Measure L6 was placed on the ballot after a two-year legal and political battle between city officials and slow-growth advocates.

The initiative was sponsored by Citizens Advocating Responsible Expansion, or We CARE-Santa Paula. The group had opposed plans to build 2,155 homes in Fagan Canyon, which the council supported.

Voters rejected that project in June, just two months after quashing plans for a luxury home development in neighboring Adams Canyon that would have included a 200-room hotel and spa, a private 18-hole golf course and a country club.

Meanwhile, activists have sought to place Measure L6 on the ballot for the last two years, collecting enough signatures to qualify the initiative. But the city refused to comply, contending that the referendum violated state law by not explaining how the city's General Plan could be affected.

The matter ended up in court. In May, the 2nd District Court of Appeal effectively ruled against the city. Now voters will get their chance to decide how to proceed.

"We're one of the few cities in the county that has retained its pristine charm like we had in the 1950s and 1960s," Robinson said, "but we can still have smart growth."

Robinson and Fernandez were encouraged to run for the council by some of the same people who fought to stop what they considered overdevelopment in Fagan Canyon.

"I wouldn't call it retribution," said Richard Main, coauthor of the measure. "I call it changing the City Council to get people in who will listen to" residents. Unlike county growth control laws that discourage leapfrog development, L6 would affect property within Santa Paula's city limits.

"This is a popular idea," Main said. "It's not popular with developers. But what percentage of the population are they? They have their rights and their lawyers. If they have a good plan, they can get it passed."

But Cook, the mayor, said the poorly written measure would spur a court challenge and more legal fees for the city. He said making developers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for environmental reports and election campaigns before they learn if a project can be built is misguided.

"Why are we making [developers] spend more money, when that money could be used to build more parks and other amenities?" he said.

Krause doubts the measure, as written, would accomplish its intended objective. "Voters don't want sprawl," she said, "but L6 doesn't have anything to do with stopping sprawl."

Krause, a veteran city planner, said Fagan Canyon was well planned and would have provided housing at all income levels. The project also would have tripled the amount of city parkland, helped ease school crowding and provided tens of millions of dollars in fees to the city and local school district.

"People don't want to spend the time it takes to learn about a project," Krause said. "They expect to be able to understand it with yard signs and sound bites. And land use is just too complicated to communicate in that way."

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