Ventura Avenue may be the last toehold of the western frontier in the city of Ventura.

While tract development, wine bars, Walmart and BevMo have worked their way into the historic city, the Avenue has remained a cultural relic of Ventura’s atmosphere.

Though the revitalized Downtown Ventura has been labeled “historic,” just west of and adjacent to Downtown’s Main Street, Ventura Avenue sketches memories of an old, almost forgotten America accented with linings of Mexico — where the ice-cream man visits neighborhoods daily, a foot vendor hawks sno-cones and buttered corn, taco trucks set up on corners, Spanish is the primary language in the grocery, and where mom-and-pop stores still fill storefronts.

Though the nostalgia remains, Avenue residents take home the lowest incomes within the city limits. Through the years, the streetscape has deteriorated, and attracting new businesses to the area has become nearly impossible. For more than a decade, city staff has been developing a Westside plan to address the needs of the Avenue and bring the light of economic prosperity to its threshold.

As the Westside and North Avenue Plan nears completion and approval by the City Council, a contentious item worked its way into the preliminary draft of the plan. The 4-3 outcome of a controversial Oct. 11 City Council vote now requires city staff to study the feasibility of possibly annexing 800 acres of Rancho Cañada Larga into city limits with parcels designated for development the city calls “executive housing.”

If the land is eventually annexed the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), who has final say on annexations and works independently from the county, it could potentially snowball into one of the wealthiest developed areas in the city, only a mere few miles from where some of Ventura’s lowest-income residents live. Not only might executive housing inject economic prosperity into Ventura Avenue, as proponents of Cañada Larga annexation claim, but it could fiscally revitalize the entire city. 

2Something in the way
Shull “Buz” Bonsall Jr. has seen many a vision come his way during the 24 years his family has owned the 6,500 acres of Rancho Cañada Larga. The rancho was originally a Mexican land grant from 1841 and was acquired by the Canet family around 1874. The rancho was raw land used by the Canets for more than 100 years as a cattle operation and for dry farming of lima beans, walnuts and apricots. The Bonsall family purchased the land in 1977 and continued the farming operation for 10 years. The land, of which Buz is now the managing partner, is primarily a cattle ranch.

Since Bonsall has owned the land, there have been conceptual proposals for the coveted majestic valley to be a site for secondary oil recovery, a landfill, freeway landscaping and even an age-restricted — 55 years old and older — golf course retirement community.

But for the past 12 years, since the Ventura Visioning Process identified the valley floor of Cañada Larga as a place of potential development, Bonsall has been lobbying hard for a vision of his own: A mid-range, double-digit number of rural residences that would potentially have equestrian and orchard components. The valley floor, said Bonsall, would be zoned for T-2 residential only, a zoning that eliminates the prospect of urban sprawl.

“Urban Sprawl sounds scary-and it’s meant to be,” expressed Bonsall. “I am opposed to any urban uses on this 680 acre valley floor portion of Rancho Cañada Larga.”

 Of the 800 acres being considered, approximately 200 acres would be considered for development, leaving nearly 480 acres for the riparian corridor and open space. One hundred twenty acres of the property rest on the east and west side of the Highway 33 freeway, and have already been implemented in the Westside and North Avenue Plan, likely to be zoned for commercial mixed use and suburban development

3What has stood in the way of Bonsall’s vision for his land is that the Cañada Larga valley is protected by Ventura County’s Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, which aims to protect open space and agricultural land from development. Unless his land is annexed into the city, it’s likely to remain undeveloped until SOAR’s protection expires in 2020, which would then call for another citizens’ vote.

“Historically, it’s been shown that it’s a net revenue loss to the city when they have to begin providing services to new areas instead of enhancing existing areas,” said Paul Jenkin, environmental director of the Ventura chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Yet, after more than a decade of persistence, Bonsall is inching closer to his wish.  

What is executive housing?
In 2000, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey of the 12 top employers in Ventura County, such as Amgen and Semenis, in an attempt to figure out what the city of Ventura would need to do to move a company branch into city limits.

“The number one response we got to what these executives are looking for when moving to another city was ‘Where am I and my top staff going to live? If we can’t find housing for ourselves, we’re not moving,’ ” said Bart Bleuel, former president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. “These are million-dollar executives and they won’t want to live here. That led us to believe that if these top companies need this, then Ventura needs [to build these homes] to get these companies to come here.”

Executive homes are high-cost property with a certain social exclusivity, usually grouped together on acreage distant from the general community, such as Spanish Hills in Camarillo and Rancho Matilija in Ojai.

But during the past decade, the results of the chamber’s study haven’t yielded anything in the form of meeting executive needs. The city has even witnessed copy giant Kinko’s, which was one of Ventura’s largest corporate employers, relocate headquarters to Texas, with most of its executive employees in tow. Nearly 1,000 Ventura employees worked for the corporation, and about 500 relocated after the move.

“Executive housing is something we still lack in Ventura,” said Sandra Burkhart, CEO of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. She is confident that by providing new executive housing, Ventura would reel in high-wage and high-value employers. Even executive town homes and condos, which attract young professionals, are sorely unavailable, she said. “Young professionals are looking for that, that extra status. Executive housing attracts larger companies, and those here can recruit better” if it were readily available, Burkhart added.

Maybe in the near future Ventura will be ready to focus its energy on developing elite housing and communities, but the coastal, blue-collar city simply isn’t ready to be this type of a corporate hub, claim various critics of the potential Cañada Larga annexation.

“The Chamber of Commerce has said that without executive housing, we won’t be able to attract high-end business. I just don’t understand that,” said Councilman Carl Morehouse. “We have the hills, the Keys, Pierpont . . . $1.2, $1.3 million homes . . .In terms of need, what are these people looking for? Housing akin to Camarillo and Spanish hills?

Does it have to be a gated community? I just don’t know what that means and, in and of itself, I don’t think it means anything. There is more to this than meets the eye.”

The Westside vision
City proponents for the annexation believe this may be Ventura’s best shot at executive housing development. In 2002, voters turned down the Measure A initiative to develop 1,390 homes, of which many would have been executive, on approximately 730 acres of the surrounding hillsides homes.

But this is exactly what detractors of the annexation fear the most. If annexed into the city, Cañada Larga would no longer be protected by SOAR. Any development or rezoning within the valley would be determined by four votes on the city council, not a vote by the public. Despite Bonsall’s vision that would prohibit any type of sprawl, the City Council would indefinitely have the final say in any zoning or development proposal within the defined acreage, if annexed.

“If the city votes for annexation of Cañada Larga, it is with expressed intent to develop it,” said Supervisor Steve Bennett. “The rest of (Ventura) Avenue expansion is existing urbanized areas; it is not an open-space undeveloped property. The city should only develop an area when they are ready.”

At the Nov. 17 Westside Community Workshop, nearly 200 residents filled the E.P. Foster School cafeteria to learn more about the community plan. Residents rallied behind the ideas of widening the sidewalks, adding parks, playgrounds, trash cans, street lights and trees. Improving these amenities, most residents agreed, would begin to create a more prosperous community, not focusing on the housing needs of people who aren’t even residents of the city.

“The city of Ventura made a conscious decision in the 2005 General Plan,” Jenkin said. “It was to focus on an infill approach to development that would help revitalize existing communities and concentrate new development within existing urban areas.”

The 2005 General Plan is a blueprint that sets long range goals based on a shared vision to guide Ventura’s future.
Though the idea of annexing Cañada Larga created intense debate during the workshop, most Westside residents interviewed did not see how it would directly benefit their neighborhoods.

“For most people involved in the Westside Plan, Cañada Larga is not on their radar screen, and if it is, they are passionately against it,” said Mayor Bill Fulton, an urban planner. “The thing I’m most worried about right now is that the divisiveness over Cañada Larga does not somehow create difficulty for the rest of the Westside and North Avenue Plan.”

Last April, the Westside Community Council (WCC) supported including the valley floor into the plan because it was at least worth studying, said Pamela Huckins, chair of the WCC.

“Support has waned somewhat since then, but rather than change our position, we’re still very interested in learning more about this as the plans proceed,” Huckins said.

The environmental impact report
The Westside plan is currently being circulated for public comment, and by late February the revised draft should be completed, followed by an environmental impact report (EIR), which will now ostensibly take much longer to complete due to including Cañada Larga into the study. In evaluating the area for residential development, the city has also included a significant percentage of the valley, which is now private property, to be dedicated to public access for a variety of purposes. Fulton has said, however, that he fears lawsuits could eventually mount from environmental interest groups pending Council approval, even furthering the execution of the Westside and North Avenue Plan.

What’s ironic, said Bonsall, is that Fulton was the chairman of the Visioning Process committee that first identified Cañada Larga as a place for potential development back in 1998.

“It was a very general report,” recalled Fulton. “Cañada Larga was not something we talked about at all in the 2005 General Plan.”

Prior to the Council’s direction to incorporate the valley into the Westside and North Avenue study area, the estimated amount of the study was $350,000. City officials now say the price will be significantly greater.

“Tax dollars at work are going into the environmental analysis,” said Morehouse. “And I can already tell you that it’s going to be fraught with environmental issues.”

A number of environmental coalitions have come forward in opposition to possible development on the valley floor. Coalitions including the Sierra Club, the Ventura County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Ventura Audubon Society,

Ventura Coastkeeper and Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation have been vocal about preventing the possible annexation. Issues ranging from air pollution to fire hazards, water quality and the endangerment of wildlife have been of great concern for environmental groups.

Home on the range
“There are a small number of ranchos like this in California that still actually exist, and this one is mostly preserved,” said Steve Schaefer, president of the San Buenaventura Conservancy. The conservancy has heard both sides of the Cañada Larga debate, but still remains neutral on the issue. Schaefer said the possibility of development on Cañada Larga presents an interesting case from a conservancy point of view because the historical resource may be the actual historical landscape itself.

“If done sensitively, you could definitely develop something on that property. Obviously, you don’t want to erase this historic land grant,” Schaefer said.

Recently, the annexation of another rancho, Rancho Portero, a 363-acre site adjoining the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, stirred debate in Thousand Oaks. LAFCO approved the annexation into Thousand Oaks on a 5-1 vote, with Supervisor Linda Parks objecting to the proposal.

The city says it only plans to use the acreage for new trailhead and educational opportunities, but this is exactly what confuses Parks.

“LAFCO and state law say that the purpose for annexation is for urbanization, which is one of the main purposes for cities annexing land,” said Parks. “There is no compelling reason to annex this land for just trails and picnic benches.

The fate of Rancho Portero, like that of Cañada Larga, if annexed, said Parks, will be in the hands of the majority vote of future city councilmembers.

But since the annexation of Cañada Larga would include a proposal for development, LAFCO’s process for decision would be more complex. In its determination, LAFCO has to consider municipal service demand, anticipated population and revenue analysis, among other issues. The biggest challenge for all cities in this day and age is providing long-term services to residents, said Kim Ulich, executive officer for LAFCO.

“Take the closure of the fire service on the East end,” said Ulich. “New development could provide fees for that, but long term, 40 years down the line when the city is responsible for providing ongoing operation maintenance, fire stations and police stations, replacing, for instance, sewer lines and water lines. This is all difficult to fund in today’s climate.”

The funding for such services would come primarily from property tax revenue — 1 percent from home sales, and 2 percent increases thereafter, as established by Prop 13. Residential development, however, doesn’t yield great return because it gets deeply divided among many agencies, said Ulich.

In limbo
The economic, social, recreational and even philanthropic impact is potentially too good to ignore, insisted Councilwoman Christy Weir, who has been the outspoken supporter of Cañada Larga during Council sessions. By allowing executive housing to flourish in Ventura, sales tax revenue will increase, and the city’s desire for high-wage, high-value jobs could soon be actualized, making patronage of the arts more possible, said Weir. The public could gain access to hundreds of acres of hiking trails. Naturally, she added, all of these factors would have a direct positive impact on the surrounding Westside neighborhoods.

As it stands now, determination of the fate of the contested 800-acre valley floor of Rancho Cañada Larga with its possible annexation remains months, and possibly years, away. Studies need to be done, debates need to be heard, and lawsuits will likely be filed. In the meantime, Ventura Avenue will continue its organic evolution as it sits patiently in the city’s beauty parlor waiting room for its long-promised makeover.    

shane@vcreporter.com