SOAR advocates seek signatures to make November ballot as deadline looms

by Chris O’Neal
chris@vcreporter.com

It’s a windy day at the Downtown Ventura farmers market, but the weather isn’t stopping several volunteers from collecting signatures for various causes. Of the many, a petition to renew the SOAR Initiative through 2050 is fast approaching a deadline.

SOAR, Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources, and its advocates need 6,500 signatures in the city of Ventura, and 20,000 countywide, to qualify for the November ballot. Collected thus far in Ventura, according to Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, District 1, the total is just over 6,000, but to be “safe,” as Bennett puts it, 9,500 signatures will be needed in the city and 30,000 in the county to account for invalid signatures. The ultimate goal is to collect 84,000 signatures to get in on the ballot for eight cities and the county for unincorporated areas.

Proponents have until Monday, March 21, to submit signatures for processing in order to legally guarantee a spot on the November ballot if enough signatures are confirmed; after that date, there is no guarantee.

“Every day after [March 21] we increase the risk that they would say that they couldn’t get them processed in time,” said Bennett, co-author of SOAR. “So your first priority is that you have the right number of signatures, and the second is to get them in when you have a guarantee that they’ll be processed in time to qualify for the November ballot.”

In order to do this, Bennett says that an app has been developed showing volunteers the number of registered voters in their area so that door-to-door signature gathering can take place. This is in addition to traditional canvassing happening across the county.

Signatures, however, aren’t the only hurdle to overcome on this November’s ballot. Filed recently was a competing initiative, deemed SUSTAIN VC “Stop Sprawl with Sustainable Agriculture,” that would loosen current restrictions created by SOAR that require voter approval for any development in regulated areas. Also, should the renewal of SOAR pass, land use restrictions would be extended through 2050; SUSTAIN VC extends through 2036.

Key proponents of the alternative, who filed a notice of intent to circulate a petition on Friday, Feb. 19, are heavy hitters in the county’s agricultural industry, including Phil McGrath, owner of McGrath Family Farms, and Patty Waters of Moorpark and John Lamb of Somis, both members of the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, as well as several members of the agriculture community.

SUSTAIN VC would require no voter approval to designate less than 225 acres of countywide land for processing locally grown foods, rezone certain farmlands for creation of housing and rezone agricultural properties next to schools to reduce conflict between schools and agricultural uses; over 225 acres would require voter approval. The current SOAR and renewal SOAR measures require voter approval for land use projects other than farming.

SUSTAIN would also promote construction of farmworker housing, water infrastructure and more. Proponents say that SOAR protected agricultural land but not the businesses that make use of it.

Lynn Gray Jensen, executive director of the Ventura County COLAB, says that for seven months, negotiations between SOAR proponents and members of an Ag Working Group were held to try and receive “simple supportive language addressing agriculture in our County General Plan,” but talks were cut short with only a few language changes to the initiative.

“The initiative is not what farmers need to stay economically viable with the unprecedented challenges facing Ventura County,” wrote Jensen in an email. “SOAR takes farmers for granted, tying their hands for 34 years. We hope the voters will see our proposal as a common sense measure to preserve quality of life here in the County we all love.”

Phil McGrath, owner of McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, echoes Jensen’s sentiment, adding that SUSTAIN would address water issues created by prolonged drought.

“If this drought continues, all the SOARs in the world won’t save us,” wrote McGrath in an email. “We are trying to offer a solution to keep farming viable.”

Supervisor Bennett says that the SOAR renewal would address many of the concerns.

“We do have more language supporting farmworker housing, language for small amount of food processing hubs and usage of agricultural land,” said Bennett. “The competing SOAR initiative is crafted and funded by the same people who opposed SOAR in 1998 and I think voters realize what kind of things they’re going to do different than ours.”

Since SOAR passed in 1998, there have been 11 votes on development of projects in agricultural land, with six approved by voters.

Currently, the Renew SOAR Campaign is seeking volunteers for signature gathering. For more information, call 421-9230 or visit www.SOARVC.com.