One of the cardinal rules of ballot-box zoning in California is that ballot measures beget ballot measures. That is, once the concept of making land-use decisions gets embedded in the local political culture, there is no getting rid of it — it only burrows deeper and deeper into the political landscape.
That entrenchment is partly because some ballot-box zoning actually requires voter approval for subsequent changes, and it's partly because, over time, people come to expect that they -- and not their elected officials -- are the ones who set land use policy.
Nowhere has the ballot-box zoning phenomenon played itself out so intensely as in Ventura County. The people in this affluent county north and west of Los Angeles — home to both high-tech companies and low-tech agriculture -- have been making land-use policy on election day since at least 1980, when Thousand Oaks voters first imposed an annual restriction on residential building permits. Most recently, Ventura County set the pace for the state with the passage of the Save Open space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiatives, which created a set of urban growth boundaries for virtually the entire county that can be altered only by voter approval.
This fall, Ventura County will again lead the state into a new phase of ballot-box zoning with a frenzied but fragmented battle both to alter and to protect the existing land use policies on a city-by-city basis. It appears no fewer than four measures will appear on city ballots in Ventura County. Each one of them is interesting individually, but added together they appear to represent an entire "western front" in the ballot-box zoning war.
In the cities of Simi Valley and Santa Paula, ballot measures will seek to alter existing SOAR boundaries. But in Ventura and Ojai, voters will be asked to deal with development issues in areas designated for growth. This highlights a whole new aspect of ballot-box zoning — requiring voters not only to approve projects outside urban boundaries, but also to approve projects inside the boundaries.
The two SOAR amendments are likely to be major battles in and of themselves. In Simi Valley, pro-SOAR activists will attempt to shrink the existing growth boundary so that five different pieces of property, including at least two that are prime for development, will be placed outside the growth boundary. Among the parcels that would be removed are the 2,880-acre Alamos Canyon, which landowner Unocal hopes to develop with homes and business parks, and the 239-acre Marr Ranch, which has a pending development proposal for more than 200 homes. City officials are angry that SOAR activists have gone back to the ballot to remove these parcels from the inventory of developable sites. But the SOAR leaders say they were pressed for time during the original campaign in 1998 and compromised to place these parcels inside the boundary even though they did not want to.
Meanwhile, in Santa Paula, landowners will attempt to expand the SOAR boundary to include a large hillside property — the 5,400 Adams Canyon area — on which Pinnacle Homes wants to build more than 2,000 housing units as well as commercial development. The property had previously been included in the city's general plan, but was removed by the voters when they passed Santa Paula's original SOAR boundary in November 2000. Santa Paula is already deeply split over a U.S. Department of Justice voting rights lawsuit that may cause the creation of City Council districts to ensure the town's majority Latino population receives representation. Santa Paula appears to be fissuring further over the Adams Canyon project. Some citizen activists want more high-end hillside homes in this generally low-income farm town; others want to focus on revitalization in the existing community.
In Ventura, voters will decide whether to permit a 1,300-unit project on about 5,000 acres to move forward. But to make things more confusing, the land in question is already inside the SOAR boundary, and the voters will not be deciding whether to expand or shrink that boundary. Rather, they will be voting on whether to extend water and sewer service into a hillside area already inside the SOAR boundary — a requirement imposed by Ventura voters last November. Though inside the city's sphere of influence, the land owned by Lloyd Properties was not included in the original 1995 SOAR initiative for Ventura because that measure dealt only with agricultural land. Although it is undeveloped and zoned by the county for open space, the property remains designated in the city's general plan for hillside development that could — in theory, at least — accommodate up to 8,000 housing units.
Finally, in the tiny and quaint town of Ojai, voters will decide whether to require subsequent voter approval on virtually every residential project in town. Ojai is one of only two cities in Ventura County without a SOAR boundary, largely because the conventional thinking was that the city's politics are already so slow-growth that additional restrictions were not necessary. The proposed initiative would require voter approval for projects that create any increase in traffic that is not mitigated by the project approval process.
Proposed by a local environmental group, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, the initiative would seek not only to require full mitigation of traffic problems, but also to require voter approval for the projects and for the mitigation. The initiative has raised the ire of city officials -- so much so that they have sued to try to knock it off the ballot, which is a very difficult task. They argue that the measure will create internal inconsistencies in the general plan. The citizen group and the city have been tangling recently over the city's housing element.
There is a certain way in which the rest of the state might simply view Ventura County as kooky for ballot-box zoning. After all, most other parts of the state do not use ballot-box zoning, and the passage of Ventura County's SOAR initiatives did not stimulate the statewide movement that some people predicted.
Still, land use ballot measures have become common in coastal urban areas under extreme growth pressure (see CP&DR, October 2000). The coming four-front war in Ventura County — with different issues being dealt with by different voters — suggests that the future will be more complicated anywhere that ballot-box zoning has taken hold. Every time voters make land-use decisions on the ballot, we can be sure that more ballot measures will appear in the future.