March 20, 2006 - From the March, 2006 issue

Ventura County Voters Invoke SOAR Ordinance to Preserve Open Space and Moderate Development

In the late 1990s eight Ventura County cities adopted a suite of initiatives sponsored by SOAR-Save Open-Space & Agricultural Resources-which established urban growth boundaries and required voter approval of almost all development outside a city's boundary. Earlier this month Moorpark invoked SOAR to defeat the 3,500-acre North Park development, and TPR spoke with SOAR Executive Director Karen Schmidt for an assessment of SOAR's impact on the county.

Earlier this month, the city of Moorpark overwhelmingly voted, per the stipulations of the county-wide SOAR City Urban Restriction Boundary law, not to expand the city's boundaries to include a 1,600-home, 6,000-resident development proposed on 3,500 acres of currently unincorporated county land. What's the significance of the Moorpark vote?

I think it demonstrates, particularly because of the size of the margin -a 3-1 landslide-that the people of Moorpark feel the same way that they did when SOAR was put into place when it was established in county cities between 1998 and 2001. People want to have a say in whether and where large-scale developments are built in their city.

You focus above on large-scale developments. Are larger, planned developments less desirable for housing than individual parcel-by-parcel developments?

I wouldn't say that large-scale development is less desirable per se. It's a question of where the development is going and the extent to which it reflects the needs and desires of the community. SOAR does not prevent development. It's saying that before we develop land outside the existing urban footprint, there should be a very good reason to do it, and the community should have a say in whether that development takes place.

The vote does not technically forbid the development, but it does mean that it cannot be part of Moorpark. Does this effectively kill the project, or can it proceed as an unincorporated county settlement?

The vote that took place was a Moorpark SOAR vote. For it to proceed as a development in unincorporated land, it would have to pass a countywide SOAR vote. At minimum, it would have to be approved by the County Board of Supervisors, and our county has a long and continuing policy of not being in the business of urban development in the unincorporated areas. So the chances of approving that development being in unincorporated land is very remote.

SOAR was enacted in the late 1990s, and since then most of the cities of Ventura County have signed on. Explain what SOAR is all about and what it requires of developers.

Each SOAR initiative was different, but broadly speaking, the initiatives say that land outside of the urban growth boundaries that is currently zoned as open space, agricultural, or rural cannot be up-zoned for development without voter approval. Before the SOAR initiatives were passed, the decision rested with whatever the relevant jurisdiction would have been – whether the Board of Supervisors or an individual city councils. The SOAR initiatives put the power to authorize that kind of up-zoning in the hands of voters.

This election in Moorpark has been called the biggest test of SOAR thus far. Is SOAR working the way the cities and voters of Ventura County envisioned?

We certainly think so, and I think the best example of that is happening in the city of Ventura. Although some people who voted for SOAR probably are of what you'd call a "no-growth" mentality, the intention of SOAR was not to stop growth but rather to focus on good development within the existing city footprints before gobbling up the greenbelt buffers and farmland that are such an important part of the quality of life and community identity here.

In the city of Ventura, City Manager Rick Cole has been a great champion of smart growth, but he was brought on because the city council and the community was already headed in this direction of focusing on what could be done in the city with infill and redevelopment to meet forecasted growth needs rather than sprawl out into areas, some of which might have been barely contiguous with the existing city. And it keeps development out of the last remaining greenbelt that keeps the cities of Oxnard and Ventura from merging into a single urban sprawl. To me, it's hard to believe that the city would have pushed itself in that direction if the SOAR initiative had not essentially forced it to do so.

Let's refocus on the North Park development. The developer had pledged tens of millions of dollars in fees and donations to the city, plus a nature preserve, and they reportedly felt that the project "had something for everybody." In fairness to those developers who wish to respond to the region's growing demand for housing, what must a builder do to avoid getting voted down in a SOAR jurisdiction?

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That's a good question. For starters, I'd say they have to put together projects in the cities that don't require a SOAR vote. But I don't know if that question can be answered. I don't know what the developers of North Park could have done to get a "yes" vote. It's fairly clear by the margin by which they lost that, although they may have thought they had something for everybody and had listened to the community, the vote implies that maybe they did not.

You're obviously aware of the many population projections for California that conclude that growth over the next 15 or 20 years is expected to dwarf the size of the city of Chicago. Is the effect of SOAR to preclude that growth from happening in Ventura County?

Another good question. Personally, I come from deep environmental roots and I appreciate the argument that if we don't solve the problems in our own backyard we're just going to push them into someone else's backyard, and, ultimately, we all have the same backyard. So we're not solving a problem; we're just pushing it around. On the other hand, we could pave over every last square inch of Ventura County and not solve the issues of accommodating population growth and providing affordable housing. And along the way we'd lose a huge part of what people here value about living in Ventura County.

The point I'd offer is that there aren't any easy or obvious answers to the issues of population growth and environmental protection and affordable housing, but I feel like at least here in Ventura County, we're trying to find an answer. We're trying to find a way to accommodate some level of population growth without paving over those open spaces and without losing those rich agricultural lands. Whether we'll succeed, I don't know yet. But I feel like it's a goal that worth striving for. If a place like Ventura County, with all our resources and wealth, can't figure out how to do this right, how can we hope that anybody else will?

In that regard, do you sense that there's enough infill and brownfield developments taking place within existing city limits to accommodate current demand for housing in the county?

Right now, no. Is the potential there? Absolutely. Again, the city of Ventura seems to be seriously taking on that challenge and being creative enough to look at development in a different way, rather than going down the same old path of suburban sprawl subdivisions. I think that some of our other communities are starting to take up that challenges and some are not, but the potential is absolutely there.

What are some jurisdictions in Ventura County that serve as models for managing growth?

Obviously, the city of Ventura is pushing the hardest and most creatively. But Santa Paula is certainly trying to look at new ways to redevelop its downtown and to create livable communities and incorporate some of the tenets and best practices from new urbanism and traditional neighborhood design.

Fillmore has been doing some interesting projects in its downtown, and places like Oxnard and Port Hueneme are talking about it. I'm not close enough to them to know about projects on the ground, and I'm sure that all of our communities have projects that are still doing things the old way, but I think there's a fair amount of interest in trying new things. The North Park project ought to give them some additional incentive to look creatively within their borders.

A year from now, if we come back to interview you, what issues would you expect to address?

In the next year or several years, the issue of ranchette development in unincorporated land is going to be an issue. In response to SOAR, we may see more proposals from developers for very low-density ranchette or estate development that does not require up-zoning and does not trigger a SOAR vote. That's going to be one of the interesting questions coming before our communities. The other thing I'd add, though it's not going to happen a year from now, but certainly in the coming years we'll be looking at what happens when the SOAR initiative sunset provisions set in, which begins in 2020. There's certainly interest in extending that sunset.

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