Los Angeles County’s enduring appeal draws millions of people annually from around the world to Southern California. From the tourist looking to fulfill a wish of stepping across the Walk of Fame to the struggling yet starry-eyed actor with big screen dreams, L.A. is brimming with people, people and more people arriving every day.

More than 10 million Californians reside in 88 separate cities comprising L.A. County. It’s the most densely populated region in the United States, surpassing New York City in population and in breadth.
With the influx of people comes development … lots of development.

For some, call this portion of the South Coast “sprawling” and behold a misnomer. Yet sprawl, they may say, is more common in L.A. than gridlock on the 405 at 5 p.m. That endless sea of neighborhood after neighborhood attached together, yet indistinguishable from one another; an incongruous mix of commercial and residential lumped together.

Its neighbor to the immediate south, Orange County, retains its citrus heritage in name only, having given way decades ago to the same suburban sprawl that nearly 3 million now call home.

Endless years of build-out onto every seemingly available square foot and mile across the Southland, and it becomes easy to fathom that the greater L.A. area is virtually bursting at the seams.

It wasn’t always this way, says Rick Cole, who grew up in Southern California in the 1950s.

Cole was once mayor of Pasadena — another urbanized municipality in L.A. County — before coming to Ventura five years ago, where he is now city manager. He was attracted to Ventura County, he said, because it harked back to the Los Angeles of his youth: the 1950s, when open space there was once an idyllic reality that was valued and appreciated.

“In my parents’ lifetime, L.A. County used to look like Ventura County. In my lifetime, Orange County was an agricultural county,” he said. “It’s not like Ventura is unique. It’s that Ventura’s the way it used to be in L.A. and Orange counties.

It reminded me of growing up in areas where that was still a lot closer.”

Today, travel northbound up a stretch of Highway 101, over the Conejo Grade and into Thousand Oaks, and greenbelt expanses are an abundant sight: strawberry fields to the left, towering mountain ranges to the right. At night, the skyline is lit up to a reveal of minimal development in cities like Oxnard and Camarillo. The bloated San Fernando Valley, a mere 45 minutes away, seems worlds apart.

It becomes a matter of perspective. In the pro-growth lot, Ventura County seems almost stuck in a time warp, before “bigger is better” was the mantra of many a developer looking to stake a quick claim anywhere land was available.

To others, preservation is progressive; and the restrained development and wise use of sensitive open spaces, favored by Cole and others in Ventura County, was worth adopting laws to ensure that delicate balance was maintained in perpetuity.

Voters agreed, and in 1998 passed a final ballot measure that galvanized Ventura County’s priority for protecting open space and farmland.

The Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources initiative — SOAR, for short — set into motion permanent guidelines for halting development in favor of saving land, even if it was less profitable. It also united eight agencies in Ventura County, placing them all on the same page in regard to preservation.

The lines drawn around SOAR-protected parcels are called CURBs: city urban restriction boundaries.

But SOAR, which is up for renewal in just 10 years, hasn’t been without its hurdles. County farmers are SOAR’s most strident critics, some claiming that the legislation stifles their real estate options. Transportation issues and their role in future development have entered the fold. And proponents of SOAR have battled with city leaders to develop wisely before taking it to ballot boxes.

SOAR takes flight
The forefather of Ventura County’s SOAR was a ballot measure in the Napa Valley in 1990. Proposed as a way to limit urban sprawl, it passed with voters.

Five years later, the City of Ventura became the first in Ventura County to follow suit, where SOAR guidelines passed with a 52 percent majority. Likewise, new development proposed in SOAR-protected open space can’t happen unless voters approve it. Previously, a simple majority by a city’s governing body had been all the authority needed to develop in and near sensitive open spaces.

“Before SOAR, whatever zoning general plans were in place could be overturned by a majority vote of city council,” says Karen Schmidt, the current executive director of the nonprofit SOAR. “What SOAR did in Ventura County was put the brakes on that.”

Through the latter half of the 1990s, six other cities jumped on board the SOAR train: Moorpark, Camarillo, Oxnard, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Santa Paula all adopted their own initiatives with a minimum two-thirds majority vote for each. Ventura County then became the eighth, final entity to place an entry into SOAR.

“Ventura (city and county) made the conscious choice that we would not stop building but encourage sensitive infill rather than suburban sprawl,” Cole says.

The sparsely developed Ojai opted out of SOAR, as did Port Hueneme, surrounded by Oxnard and an unincorporated area of Ventura County.

“They’re very tough on development anyway,” said Debbie Millais, a land-use planner for the County of Ventura, of both cities.

“It is probably one of the most important things to happen in this county in the last 50 years,” says Ventura architect Nick Deitch. “SOAR was a reaction to what was happening, developmentwise, and maybe what wasn’t happening planningwise. The beauty of SOAR is, it really forced all the cities in the county to rethink their whole game plan.”

SOAR supports seven voluntary greenbelt agreements throughout Ventura County. A sort of precursor to the SOAR preservation movement, these greenbelts — informal understandings between cities and the county that certain designated green open space areas cannot be developed — started between Ventura and Santa Paula, when the first greenbelt was drawn in 1967.

Acting like a connective tissue between development and green space, the remaining six greenbelts pair up agricultural land between Santa Paula and Fillmore, Camarillo and Oxnard, the Santa Rosa Valley, Ventura and Oxnard, Fillmore and Piru, and Tierra Rejada, the last of which was amended further by county leaders this month, to further protect the greenbelt bordered by Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley.

Greenbelts, when partnered with the formal SOAR initiative, provide a good balance, says Deitch, because they allow more than enough room to develop reasonably within the county’s existing boundaries.

“Our existing cities in Ventura County have enough capacity within their boundaries to accommodate all the growth we need in 40 years, by retooling,” he said. “There’s not a necessity to go beyond.”

aAnother kind of green in mind
Maybe so, according to SOAR supporters. The irony, however, is that farmers in Ventura County — the very people SOAR aims to protect — don’t always share the same positive opinions on agricultural preservation.

Simply put, several farmers and growers have felt restricted by SOAR’s rule set, according to John Krist, executive director of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, and don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do with their land. They believe their property rights are placed in question.

“The fundamental bottom line for the owner of an ag piece of land is who should have the right to make a determination about the eventual use of that property,” Krist says.

While Krist is happy that SOAR has saved vital open spaces from development, he says that right should be placed in the hands of farmers, not voters; for that reason, the Farm Bureau does not take an official stance on ballot measures which ask for changes to local CURB lines.

According to Ventura farmer Edgar Terry, age and shifts in agricultural trends work against farmers in Ventura County.

“The generational change is to lease the ground out, because of the complexities of farming,” Terry says. “You get up there in age, [into] your 60s and 70s, you want to get out and sell real estate, and you have two choices: stay in farming until I die, or sell to another farmer.”

Yet selling to another farmer would be easy if there was more agricultural diversity in Ventura County, once a place where growers of any crop could thrive.

The 2008 crop report from the county agricultural commissioner’s office reported that fruit and nut crops dominated farming production, with strawberries, at the top of the list, netting nearly $394 million last year alone. But despite the healthy figures, Ventura County has over time severely streamlined its variety of crops, and as such, farming isn’t as accessible in Ventura County as it was years ago.

As a consequence, farmers seeking retirement may also find it more difficult to sell their land to other growers interested in entering the Ventura County ag market, especially when SOAR dictates that the land can’t be used for anything else.

Newer, younger generations may not want to continue farming as their fathers or grandfathers did once, but if their family land is SOAR-restricted, they’re left with few options as well.

“From an individual land owner’s perspective, you’re thinking about maximizing your own wealth, what your kids are going to inherit, and that you and your heirs can do whatever you want with that land,” says Schmidt.

However, the restrictions act as a safeguard.

“Just because you own the property,” says Schmidt, “doesn’t mean you can build a nuclear waste dump in your backyard or build a skyscraper in a single-family residential neighborhood.”

“If you own ag property, there’s tremendous financial incentive to convert it to develop,” says Steve Bennett, the county’s 1st District supervisor and an early SOAR proponent, who sympathizes with farmers in that position.

“It’s understandable why they’d be opposed,” Bennett adds.

Josh Pinkerton is a Ventura farmer who holds this viewpoint.

“It’s been over 10 years and the public is still waiting to hear a plan on how SOAR is going to save farms and ranches that cease to be economically viable (to anyone) due to urban encroachment,” Pinkerton said in an e-mail. “SOAR’s exclusion of any type of buffer zone implementation policy only exacerbates the issue.”

Pinkerton says SOAR has omitted from its plans alternative land use policies that would increase the economic viability of farmland in Ventura County. He would like to see incorporated into those plans more input from stakeholders in the farming industry, as well as alternative land use policies from groups like the VC Agricultural Futures Alliance.

It’s difficult to determine exact numbers comparing residential versus agricultural real estate in 2009 because the housing market has stalled considerably, says Kevin McAtee, a Ventura land appraiser.

“I think farmers are right to say SOAR stifles a change in land use. But that change is economy driven,” McAtee said. “All of the residential developers have been largely dormant or put out of business waiting for the economy to improve.”

Thrown to the CURB
The value discrepancy of either developing land or farming it is at least one reason why there’ve been rumblings over the Oxnard City Council’s wish to amend a CURB line to accommodate new development, which presumably favors profit over preservation.

“Jones Ranch, at a minimum, basically is about making or inflating the value of Mr. (Dick) Jones’ land tenfold,” says Tim Flynn.

A former Oxnard City Council member and one of the most outspoken watchdogs of Oxnard government, Flynn estimates that the city stands to earn between $500,000 and $1.5 million from residential development by annexing into the SOAR-protected Jones Ranch, far more than the $50,000-$75,000 in gains from its current agricultural state.

Voters will be deciding in June if a CURB line in Oxnard should be moved, reducing about 500 acres of protected land, to accommodate a housing project called the Del Norte Community Extension just north of the unincorporated El Rio section of the city. Three hundred, fifty acres are currently farmed; Jones Ranch comprises about 165 of that total acreage.

The remaining acreage of the protected land — about 150 acres — is water spreading ground for the El Rio-serviced portion of the United Water Conservation District.

City officials, including Mayor Tom Holden, have gone on record in the past stating that the city has an obligation to provide more than 4,100 state-mandated affordable housing units. Only 14 percent of those units are constructed in Oxnard so far. Approving the extension, they say, would greatly accelerate meeting the city’s goal of providing low-income housing where the need is great.

According to Oxnard Senior City Planner Chris Williamson, the future of the CURB line will be incorporated into a voter-approved, new Oxnard general plan next year.

If the CURB line is changed, it will be just one of only a few instances when SOAR boundaries have been altered. Of the most noteworthy, Santa Paula has twice previously amended its CURB lines for development. And Ventura has also altered its zoning after voters approved changes to the city’s SOAR initiative at the polls.

Although the final decision is left up to the voting public, win or lose, people like Flynn and Schmidt of SOAR feel that a city like Oxnard — the largest in Ventura County — has enough options and surplus land to develop before taking it to the ballots. It’s frivolous, says Flynn.

“There can be affordable housing and walkable smart-growth housing built within the city’s boundaries,” he said.

Schmidt also maintains that while the city’s CURB annex ballot submission is perfectly legal and acceptable, it goes against the grain of what Oxnard leaders agreed upon when they signed up for SOAR in 1997.

“Our view is that they have not made the case they can do more within their existing boundaries,” she said. “In just over 10 years, they’re saying, ‘This isn’t enough space,’ when just 10 years ago, they said, ‘This is how much space we need until 2020.’ It’s exactly the kind of piecemeal planning and revisionist planning we’re opposed to, and that most SOAR supporters are opposed to.”

SOARing into sustainability
The housing element aside, SOAR is 10 years on, yet still in the beginning stages of incorporating smart traffic elements into its fabric.

“Transit-oriented development” — TOD, for short — is the next piece to be added to the slow-growth puzzle, the piece SOAR backers are promoting after the passage last year of SB 375.

The senate bill is one of the first to address a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by requiring public agencies to devise strategies to diminish passenger-car traffic. The TOD idea is that by implementing better public transportation, cars can be kept off the road. And by building new commercial/residential development close to public transit stations, away from protected open space, the needs of SOAR and SB 375 can both be met.

The “green transportation” link has become the biggest emphasis for groups like the Ventura Council of Governments and the Ventura County Transportation Commission, whose members will be working cooperatively in this area.

Darren Kettle, who had been executive director of the commission, now leads both organizations.

“The quickest approach to try and encourage people to get out of their cars is to improve investment in transportation,” says Kettle. “That’s how we’re going to accomplish our goals in the short term.”

One challenge is increasing the frequency of commuter bus and train trips where there are major transit centers in Ventura County, as in Oxnard and Moorpark.

“How we look at transit in Ventura County and how it can be effective is generally different than the rest of Southern California,” Kettle notes.

However, because Ventura County adopted SOAR and effectively stamped out L.A.-style development, there are more choices and more leeway in where to plan more enhanced transportation centers because development here has remained on the low-density side. It’s a different story in places like Los Angeles, says Ventura City Manager Cole.

“We don’t understand urbanism in Southern California,” he says. “The majority of what was built, was built after the proliferation of the car. When we start talking urban, people get really uncomfortable.”

SOAR is not a permanent fixture and will be up for renewal again in just 10 years. Its supporters know there is some backlash, but also a county’s worth of support for protecting agricultural spaces. Most of all, people like Cole understand that SOAR, in itself, is in a constant state of flux, whether it’s about transportation, green building or farmland.

“I think SOAR, on balance, has been the textbook example of doing it right; but like everything else, you can’t stop there,” he said. “There’s always the question of, ‘Now what?’ ”