Ventura County’s growth restrictions help — and hurt

A surfer points out the wave action at sunset at Surfers’ Point in Ventura in 2011.
A surfer points out the wave action at sunset at Surfers’ Point in Ventura in 2011. Tribune News Service

Ventura County is the most glorious and verdant of California kingdoms.

Just ask its princes and princesses — those fortunate enough to be able to afford to live and vote there. The about 900,000 residents can pretend they live in the country, with parks or farmland always nearby. The Kingdom of Ventura’s cities remain separate and distinct developments on the landscape — they haven’t sprawled and melted into one another, like cities do elsewhere in Southern California.

Their secret?

“No other county in the United States has more effective protections against urban sprawl,” according to the website for Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, a family of growth-controlling ballot measures.

Those SOAR protections have been fixed in the laws of the county and its cities for two decades. SOAR effectively permits development only within certain urban boundaries in the county and makes no allowances for population growth. If you want to develop protected open space or alter the boundaries, you need a vote of the people.

Ventura voters like the results so much they are expected to extend the SOAR protections through 2050 in the November elections. A counter ballot measure from agricultural interests (seeking room to develop food processing facilities) would extend protections through 2036.

In effect, they’ve made their kingdom a mighty fortress. Those sprawling suburban housing developments that fill up the San Fernando Valley to the east? They stop at the county’s edge. It’s almost as if Ventura County has built a wall against growth along its border — and made neighboring Los Angeles pay for it.

But there is a problem with this wall, and within the kingdom. The princes and princesses of the kingdom have enjoyed all the benefits of growth restrictions — while avoiding some related responsibilities.

Smart growth strategies like SOAR are not only supposed to preserve open space. They also are supposed to drive more creative, dense, multifamily and transit-oriented development in the urban cores where growth is still permitted.

But such infill development in Ventura County has lagged far behind what’s needed to serve the kingdom’s growing population and its housing needs. The same citizens of the kingdom who back SOAR have tended to oppose multifamily and denser developments, and they have resisted transit investments to connect their cities.

The results are as obvious as the choking traffic on the 101 Freeway and housing prices that make Ventura County one of the country’s least affordable places. The lack of housing for middle- and lower-income people forces them to commute from outside the county, and it makes it hard for companies to grow and locate there.

Local anti-growth bias is becoming a major statewide issue as California faces a crisis in housing affordability and availability — for anyone but the most affluent.

“There is an uncertain capacity within our urban boundaries to accommodate job growth,” Bruce Stenslie, president of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County, said during a conference on SOAR, adding: “We need to be a little more mature about questions concerning in-fill development and higher density.”

Of course immaturity about growth — and high housing prices and traffic — is not limited to Ventura County.

In fact, Ventura is an example of the California disease — grab your piece of the kingdom, and keep out anyone who might come after you.

Local anti-growth bias is becoming a major statewide issue as California faces a crisis in housing affordability and availability — for anyone but the most affluent. To push back against anti-growth local communities, Gov. Jerry Brown is championing legislation that would exempt many urban housing developments from environmental or local government review.

Many localities have responded to this statewide push defiantly, via local ballot measures that block growth and housing, as the Voice of San Diego documented recently. The most reactionary of these ballot initiatives comes from Santa Monica, which would require a vote of the people on most developments taller than two stories.

The defense of those backing anti-growth measures is disingenuous: If you don’t like restrictions, you can go to the ballot. But that argument is an invitation for development to be determined by a showdown between NIMBY demagoguery and self-interested political money, as opposed to any rational long-range planning.

One lesson from Ventura County is that growth boundaries like SOAR shouldn’t be pursued in isolation. They need to be tied to rock-solid requirements for creating more housing, both for low-income and middle-income people.

So if a county wants to protect open space from development, great. But it must be compelled to open gates in its walls wide enough to bring more progressive development into the kingdom.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that publishes original essays by journalists. For more information, go to www.zocalopublicsquare.org.