This spring, Oxnard’s iconic Wagon Wheel Motel shut its doors forever, as the Westlake Village-based Daly Owens Group completed plans for its 64-acre mixed-use project known as The Village. Depending who you ask, those plans are either a blessing for the city that a possible new ballot measure known as the Oxnard Traffic Initiative could kill, or the latest in a series of massive developments facing the city that could further bog down an already aggravating traffic nightmare.

Just a few hundred yards away from the Wagon Wheel site is the site where local dignitaries stood near the Santa Clara River in August to celebrate the completion of a new bridge and freeway interchange connecting drivers between Ventura and Oxnard.

A short distance away, an abandoned Levitz furniture store sits in the shadows of the county’s highest, and only, skyscrapers. There, three new towers that could house hundreds of condominiums and offices are on the drawing board. Across the nearby 101 Freeway, construction crews slowly complete new homes and a shopping center at the still unfinished RiverPark complex.

Throughout the city, meanwhile, the foundations are being laid by supporters and opponents of the proposed Oxnard Traffic Initiative as the rancor between the two sides builds. One side consists of activists led by Oxnard City Council member Tim Flynn, Southbank Neighborhood Council Chairman Bert Perello, and former Planning Commissioner Edward Castillo. Opponents of the initiative, meanwhile, have formed a new group known as Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous Oxnard, a coalition rooted in early opposition to the measure from the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce

Although they offer different interpretations of their goals, each side is staking out a position on development in Oxnard and what could happen with the Levitz and Wagon Wheel projects and more than 10 other proposed developments. As supporters gather signatures and opponents gather money, the fight may become less about traffic and more a referendum on where the city of Oxnard is, where it has come from, and where it is going.

“People that want to see development continue unabated would say it’s a ‘stop development’ thing. It’s not,” Flynn said. “Really, we feel that’s just the responsible thing to do. It’s irresponsible growth to continue to allow developments.”

Supporters of the initiative are gathering signatures for a petition to put the initiative on the ballot, most likely in the Nov. 2, 2008 presidential election. Flynn would not reveal how many signatures have been collected so far.

If passed, the measure would amend the city’s general plan to prohibit Oxnard’s city council or planning commission from granting permits to new residential developments with more than five units, or commercial, industrial or retail projects larger than 5,000 square feet until every intersection within five miles of the proposed project meets traffic standards outlined in the initiative. Twenty-five intersections that already fail to meet those standards, which are based on a 2000 highway capacity manual used by traffic engineers throughout the country. Any developer seeking an exemption from these rules would have to take their project to voters

Opponents of the initiative, like Tom Cady, a retired assistant police chief who now heads the newly-formed Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous Oxnard, argue the measure has never been about gridlock, and that, if passed, it would cost the city revenues and developers’ fees that could otherwise be used for traffic mitigation.

“The so-called traffic initative doesn’t provide anything to fix traffic,” Cady said. “Trying to come up with a simple solution to a complex problem is destined to be problematic.”

Backed by developers, landowners, regional business organizations, taxpayer advocates and real estate professionals, Cady’s coalition also urges private citizens to fight the traffic initiative. Voters who may have already signed the petition but now regret their early support are also asked to write the city clerk’s office to have their signatures removed from the petition.

Daniel Martinez, the Oxnard City Clerk, said Nov. 19 that only three such requests have been received. The petition seeking to place the initiative on the ballot hasn’t yet been submitted, so Martinez said his office will only deal with the removal requests if and when the petition is received.

Cady said his group is focused on educating Oxnard residents about what he says is a misleading proposal that would do more harm than good.

“I believe it is a cross-section of people in the community who support our effort,” Cady said of opponents to the initiative.

Supporters of the initiative, however, say if enacted, the measure would be the first step to addressing a problem that has exploded since city officials reduced the fees developers pay for traffic mitigation in 1993. In the intervening years, the city’s population has grown from about 150,000 people to more than 180,000 today.

Perello said a proposal to construct a Lowes’ home improvement store near the intersection of Gonzales Road and Oxnard Boulevard spurred him to action.

“I have no expertise to question the city’s view that it would not increase the traffic in that subdivision but common sense leads me to believe that somebody is missing the elephant in the room when they do not take into consideration the volume of development between Rice Avenue and Victoria Avenue on Gonzales Road,” Perello said. “Specifically, they said it would not impact the Gonzales Road, Oxnard Boulevard intersection. I can’t believe that.”

The Gonzales and Oxnard intersection isn’t one of the city’s 25 worst intersections cited by the Matrix Design Group in a 2005 study conducted for the city as part of an update to its general plan, but the nearby intersection of C Street and Gonzales is identified in the report as “critical” in the evening rush hour.

“We’re trying to hold the city accountable to their own general plan,” Perello said. “The numbers are taken directly out of city documents. We have not come up with pie in the sky ideas.”

Perello said he isn’t supporting the initiative to try to stop any particular development. Instead, he said, the measure’s supporters hope to improve health, safety and the quality of life in Oxnard.

“This is about the traffic and its impacts exponentially over the past few years,” he said.

Some initiative supporters believe reducing developers fees in the 1990s amounted to a $100 million giveaway that is rearing its head in the gridlock Oxnard faces today.

“We’re just tired of project after project where circulation is not being considered,” Castillo said. “Had we updated the general plan every five years like every other city we wouldn’t be the mess that we are in today.”

Cady says, however, that the “mess” will only be fixed by addressing “mundane” details like synchronizing traffic lights and working on a project to move Highway 1 from Oxnard Boulevard to Rice Avenue so truck traffic can be diverted around the city. But he says the five-mile radius in which developers must consider traffic is too big.

“One intersection somewhere near the middle of Oxnard means you couldn’t build anything without this initiative impacting it or anything,” Cady said. “People want to do something about the problem of traffic. People want to see something done. I think they realize after they explain the real impact of this measure they understand this is not the right solution.”

In fact, in a letter sent to members of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce, Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Lindholm wrote that developers interested in redeveloping “blighted” properties, including the Levitz site, “could very easily — and reasonably — decide that it is not worth the effort of running a campaign each time they want to revitalize sites in Oxnard.”

In a Nov. 15 phone interview, Lindholm told the Reporter of a presentation in August on the Wagon Wheel project by Jasch Janowicz, the planning director for the Daly Owens Group. At the end of the presentation, Janowicz was asked what Daly Owens would do if the initiative passed.

“Without hesitating for a second, he said, ‘Walk away,’” Lindholm said. “It just is not economically feasible for someone to even attempt to take these projects to a ballot.”

She said controlled growth can occur in Oxnard and, as the city’s developable land shrinks, plans will have to be made for infill and redevelopment within the city.

“Developers do not cause growth, they accommodate growth,” she said. “As long as people keep having children and we all keep living longer there is going to be growth that needs to be accommodated.”

Supporters of the measure, though, say claims that developers are going to walk away if the measure passes are scare tactics. Flynn said other city council members need to be more accountable for their consultations with developers.

“Developers have really gotten away with murder,” he said. “Oxnard is a laughing stock among people in the development world.”

Flynn said Oxnard needs to take the more measured approach to growth that other cities in Ventura County have taken in recent years.

“The bottom line is what has really taken place is that Oxnard is at a crossroads right now,” he said. “There is a city establishment which largely consists of people who have been in the farming business. That city establishment has been added to by newcomers. They call the shots. I think today what’s happened is there is a new awareness that things can’t be what they have been for 100 years. I think this initiative speaks very loudly for that.”