VICKIE PETERS              EARTH DAY   2010

HOPEDANCE : ESSAY : VENTURA COUNTY SOAR INITIATVE

Reflections on the Political Economy of Development in Ventura County

Bruce Babbitt poses an intriguing question in his prologue to Cities in the Wilderness:

Why demonize land developers when the real problem is the pervasive failure of state and local governments to control sprawl through meaningful land use regulations? The problem lies within us and our political institutions.  Local governments generally have neither the political will nor the expertise nor the financial resources to stand up to well-financed developers [too many of whom are] demanding “just one more exception” while lubricating their requests with political contributions. And the occasional local government that does attempt effective planning often loses out, unable to influence what happens just outside the city limits or across the county line, where the jurisdiction with the least environmental regulations often prevails in the competition for jobs and tax revenue (5).

Until recently, I was fortunate to be a longtime resident of Ojai, which is often described as one of the most progressive cities in Ventura County in terms of conservation and environmental activism.  During my 27 years in Ojai, I was an active member of several environmental conservation groups, including the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC), the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee (KSWC), the Ojai Valley Green Coalition (OVGC), Citizens to Preserve Ojai (CPO), and the Tree Committee which was convened by the Ojai City Council in early 2000.

When I decided to return to school for an advanced degree in geography, I knew that commuting from Ojai could easily become a nightmare, so I decided to move closer to Northridge. During six months of what all too often seemed like fruitless searching for another community that felt even vaguely similar to Ojai, I looked around in Agoura, Calabasas, Camarillo, Moorpark, Oak Park, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, and Ventura, before finally finding a place to live in Wood Ranch. And rather than confuse people by telling them that I had moved to Simi Valley, I soon dreamed up what I thought was a unique and evocative description of my new home away from home: “I live in Tierra Rejada, which is the area where the edges of the communities now known as Moorpark, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks converge.”

And for those who wanted a more specific point of reference, I reassured them with this: “I now live just across Madera Road from the Reagan Library.” And, as it turned out, the language that I was using to describe the area where Wood Ranch is situated is not new or unique; these same words are already being used by many others to describe this island of relative calm and sanity in an area that has long been under pressure from the same type of well-financed development community that Mr. Babbitt is describing.

Mr. Babbitt continues:
It is not my intention simply to add another hand-wringing lamentation to the chorus of studies that detail our failures at rational land use planning. The purpose of this book is to show how we can prevent the loss of natural and cultural landscapes and watersheds through stronger federal leadership in land use planning (5). Landowners, developers, farmers, planners, historic preservationists, conservationists — wherever we reside, in cities, in suburbs, or in rural areas, we must all begin to comprehend our surroundings as landscapes and watersheds. We must explore what they mean in our lives and determine how to live in and use them while conserving their essential functions, passing them intact and unimpaired to future generations (11).

BACKGROUND:   SOAR Initiative     (source: http://www.soarusa.org/ 2005)    
Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources: Protecting Open-Space from Urban Sprawl
SOAR is a local non-profit organization dedicated to making Ventura County a better place to live by limiting urban sprawl, protecting open space and agricultural lands, and promoting livable and sustainable communities in Ventura County.  The first SOAR Initiative was approved by the voters in the City of Ventura in 1995. Since then SOAR Initiatives have passed in all major cities in Ventura County, and also on a countywide basis throughout Ventura County. No other county in the United States has more effective protections against urban sprawl.  None!  Once cities sprawl together, each city loses the unique character vital to a real sense of community. SOAR guards against runaway, ill-planned growth before the problems associated with urban sprawl get out of hand; SOAR ensures well-planned cities that work – focusing development within existing urban areas; SOAR protects farming and our greenbelts.  


ISSUES AND CONCERNS:    Simi Valley Annexation Proposal

Reagan Library stays outside Simi’s “sphere of influence,” for now    (headline @ 2 pm)
Simi Valley growth vote is delayed    (headline revised @ midnight)
(Source: Ventura County Star: April 19, 2007)

Ventura LAFCO … which oversees the boundaries of cities and other public agencies put off until June a vote on whether to adjust Simi Valley’s “sphere of influence” to include the Reagan Library and the nearby homes and open space. If the sphere is expanded, the city could annex the area, bringing it into city limits. If the area is annexed, the city of Simi Valley, rather than the county of Ventura, would get its local tax revenues, and would have the power to decide what, if any, development could occur there.

The area in question covers about 230 acres. The library sits on 100 acres, and next to that is 68 acres of open space, which the library is trying to buy to preserve it, LAFCO Executive Director Everett Millais said. There are also four single-family homes on 10-acre lots, and another two lots that have been graded for one home each. LAFCO’s decision to delay the vote came at the request of the cities of Moorpark and Thousand Oaks, whose representatives said their city councils needed time to consider the ramifications of the move.

The Simi Valley, Moorpark, and Thousand Oaks city councils, as well as the county of Ventura, will also use the time to re-examine a greenbelt agreement that preserves the land and forbids any city from annexing it.  The Tierra Rejada greenbelt agreement was signed in 1984 by the county and the three cities. Each agency agreed not to annex or develop the rural land that separates Simi Valley, Moorpark, and Thousand Oaks.

Bringing the Reagan Library into Simi Valley’s sphere of influence would not violate this agreement, but annexing it would. LAFCO officials said bringing the Reagan Library into Simi Valley makes sense because the city already provides water and other services to the area, and maintains the roads, even though they’re outside of the city limits. LAFCO policy calls for expanding city spheres of influence whenever a city is providing services to an area just outside its boundaries.  (Ventura County Star: April 19, 2007)

SOAR COMMUNITY ACTION ALERT     (source: http://www.soarusa.org/ 2009)  
Simi Valley Community Action Alert: Tierra Rejada Greenbelt Threatened (September 2009)
The City of Simi Valley has a proposal to annex part of the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt, the rural land that separates the cities of Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. It is a reasonable request because the City already provides urban services to the [Reagan] Library and six adjoining residential lots. Greenbelts are to protect rural lands, not urban lands. However, Simi Valley’s annexation proposal also includes taking into the City of Simi an additional 68-acre parcel to the east of the Reagan Library that does not receive any services and is undeveloped open space. This 68-acre parcel is part of the open space lands the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt Agreement is intended to protect from urbanization. State law specifies that annexations are to be done for purposes of development. The City of Simi Valley states it has no development purposes for this land, so there is no need for the City to incorporate it into its city boundaries. Fortunately, the City of Simi Valley has stated it does not object to SOAR’s proposal to keep the 68-acre open space parcel in the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt. Hopefully LAFCO will agree.

OUTCOME AND LOOKING FORWARD     (source: Simi Valley Acorn)   
City wins annexation bid – Simi Valley just got a little bigger (November 20, 2009)
On Wednesday, the Ventura County Local Agency Formation Commission [LAFCO] unanimously approved the city’s request to annex the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and six adjacent residential parcels totaling 161 acres. Mayor Paul Miller was pleased with the outcome … While the commission okayed most of the city’s original application, the commission did decide to keep a 68-acre vacant piece of property – which is currently not receiving city services – within the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt. Though the decision goes against LAFCO’s usual policy of orderly boundaries, the commission felt in this case that the land would be better protected from development if it remained in the county’s open space buffer. Miller believes the city would have done as good a job if not better of protecting the land but said it really made no difference to the [City] Council if LAFCO included the parcel or not.  (Simi Valley Acorn: Nov 20, 2009)

As a resident of a community that is adjacent to the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt, I am both impressed and inspired by the decision made by LAFCO during their meeting on November 18, 2009.  The Commission determined that the 68-acre open space parcel to the east of the Reagan Library, which does not receive any urban services and is situated in one of the most visually enchanting areas in the Tierra Rejada Valley, should not be annexed to Simi Valley.  Although numerous elected and appointed officials in Simi Valley claimed that the City would have protected the property from development, I firmly believe that this land will be better protected by Ventura County as part of the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt than would have been the case if the parcel had been annexed to Simi Valley. As reported in the Ventura County Star, the City of Simi Valley had been actively pursuing the annexation of this property for several years (since 2007, or possibly even longer).

According to published data, the population within the city limits of Simi Valley increased from 101,217 to 111,351 between 1990 and 2000, and as of early 2010, the population had increased again to 126,322. (http://www.simivalley.org) Given the development climate and growth trends in the area, I truly consider it to be a blessing that LAFCO made an exception to its usual position regarding orderly boundaries by NOT approving Simi Valley’s original request to annex the entire 230 acres.  Instead, LAFCO determined that the 68-acre undeveloped parcel should remain in the Tierra Rejada Greenbelt, which is intended to protect open space lands from urbanization. LAFCO’s decision in this case was congruent with the resource conservation and protection philosophies that Bruce Babbitt advocates throughout Cities in the Wilderness: We can promote progress even as we preserve our history, our culture, and the integrity of the natural world in which we live (179).

EARTH DAY 2010   !!! LET’S MAKE EVERY DAY EARTH DAY !!!

Vickie Peters is a writer and editor with expertise in the development of public relations and marketing programs for public agencies, private industry, and community-based organizations. She graduated with honors from Cal Poly, SLO, and is a graduate student at CSU Northridge where she is studying geographic information science and political ecology. She can be reached at [email protected].