Call it a blessing or a missed opportunity, but the long arm of coastal development hardly touched down in Ventura County during the whole of the ’90s.

One might wonder why — when Ventura is sandwiched between Santa Barbara and the development-dense Los Angeles County — Ventura was, in a sense, spared from urban add-ons. For most of the last decade, it lacked all the trappings of hyper-sprawl: the number of Starbucks per capita was meager, and there was nary a Wal-Mart in sight.

To put this era into perspective, consider a 2001 study by the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, which reported that between 1990 and 2000, only 6 percent (or 24,821) of building permits issued for residential housing in the Southern California region were given for projects within Ventura County. (The Southern California region is classified as Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura Counties. By comparison, Los Angeles received 30 percent of issued building permits, Riverside 25 percent.)

The percentage of population growth was highest in Los Angeles County. In the Southern California region, population increased by 15 percent in this 10-year period, and of that, 36 percent of the increase was split among Imperial, Riverside and Ventura Counties.

Housing prices in Ventura increased 36 percent between 1988 and 2000, giving Ventura and Orange Counties the highest median housing values in the region. Similarly, both counties reported a shortage of affordable housing, with strict constraints on how many housing units may be developed in both counties.

The SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) Initiative, which passed in 1998 in Ventura County, is partly responsible for that. It set city urban restriction boundary (“CURB”) lines around cities, requiring proposed development outside of CURB parameters to be OK’d by voters.

This reflected a common sentiment, shared by council members and citizens alike: Urban sprawl must be resisted.

“The citizens of Ventura County have made a stronger statement than other counties that you should not build on the buffers between the cities,” says Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett.

He offered a response for those who argue that Ventura County’s unique semirural feel, in the 1990s as now, has resulted in higher housing costs: “I’m driving through Orange County now and they’ve paved it over. They have the same issues of affordability, but they haven’t resisted the urban sprawl mess.”

And why wasn’t Ventura faced with a similar sprawling mess?

“The housing market itself became slow,” Bennett says of the last decade, noting a significant housing slump in 1992 and 1993. “Permits had been issued but the developers were not building the homes.”

But to explain the lack of cookie-cutter, manufactured residential developments, and the dearth of big box stores, we need to go back to the ’80s, or up Telephone Road, to observe the “excessive” development that happened on the East End, what Bennett refers to as “hopscotch, piecemeal development.”

“[Developers] would pass over two farms, develop the subdivision, pass over two farms … That created a backlash that manifests itself in 1989, where growth really was the issue.”

This shaped the political climate: Bennett recalls a 1989 campaign wherein candidates identifying themselves as in favor of slow development won by nearly twice as many votes as candidates in favor of fast growth. Thus, he says, the City Council began to embrace growth issues, showing more concern for sprawl than was exhibited in surrounding counties. Bennett refers to this as “a political backlash to the poorly planned development of the late 1980s”

“That limited the number of housing units [the City Council members] were approving each year, and even those weren’t all getting built.”

Slump or no, the development paradigm was a different beast in the last decade. In the days before SOAR, a savvy developer would look to the outskirts of town for a potential development site, areas which would be designated beyond the “CURB” after the initiative was implemented in 1998. “There’s a reason that downtown was deteriorating and they were building on the outskirts in the early and mid-’90s,” explains Bennett.

After all, there is a battery of concerns when redeveloping an urban area, including whether the building or block in question qualifies as historical.

When many agricultural areas were designated all but off-limits as development sites, downtown Ventura suddenly became more cost-effective in the development realm. Still, developers weren’t quick to skip down to Main. Instead, they appealed, unsuccessfully, to the court system to ask that the SOAR initiative be declared unconstitutional.

“It took the city a while to get out of thinking about developing outside of the city, and then [to think about] developing inside,” says Bennett.

City Manager Rick Cole claims that one of the things that attracted him to Ventura was that, during the 1990s, the county avoided the rest of Southern California’s mistakes, like “dumb growth,” or building for the sake of filling space, with no regard to “rich farmland or sensitive habitat,” and developing businesses and residences in areas that could not support a higher volume of traffic.

He agrees with Bennett’s assessment of Ventura’s more calculated growth.

“Things like the SOAR initiative and the earlier guidelines of orderly development of the county laid the foundations for Ventura County becoming a regional model in this decade,” he asserts.

Although strip malls weren’t popping up left and right, Cole puts forward, “I don’t think we lacked for industrial, office and retail development during the 1990s.” He cites Amgen and an “expansion of shopping opportunities” throughout the county as evidence.

“But what didn’t happen was that growth didn’t explode in the way it did in the inland empire and Orange County, or in some of the more urbanized areas of Los Angeles County.”

Of course, it isn’t entirely fair to say Ventura County falls short next to the much larger Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Cole points out that we lack many of the other counties’ draws: We have no international airport, major university or industrial sector.

Still, he says, the Ventura County citizenry took wise steps to ensure that growth didn’t go unchecked.

“I think what Ventura County did in the ’90s was set the stage,” he considers, “and what’s happening today is figuring out our next act.”