In November, voters will have to choose between two competing ballot measures, both claiming to be the best solution for protecting agricultural land and open spaces in Ventura County while limiting urban development and preserving the county’s unique character.
The initiatives are commonly known as SOAR and Sustain VC, but will show up on the ballot as Measure C and Measure F, respectively.
SOAR, which stands for Save Open space and Agricultural Resources, was first passed by popular vote and became law in Ventura County in 1995. Its original intent was to protect these areas from development and prevent urban sprawl. But many local farmers found SOAR to be too restrictive and limiting so they created Sustain VC.
“The farmers were frustrated with the amount of regulations and the amount of difficulty to get their projects done through the county,” said Lynn Gray Jensen, a representative for Measure F and the executive director of Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. “That’s really how all this started.”
“We spent a lot of time meeting with them,” said Steve Bennet, county supervisor and co-creator of Measure C. “The negotiations did not result in anything. The biggest reason being, there’s a lot of things you need to be very clear on when you write an initiative like this. You need to define your terms. That determines whether there are loopholes in your initiative or not. They were happy having these vague terms in there that leave all kinds of loopholes.”
Both measures require that any development in lands designated as agricultural, rural or open space pass a countywide vote before being approved, and most of the language in each bill is very similar. But there are a few significant distinctions that could have a big impact on the county.
Measure F would allow farmland adjacent to schools to be redesignated to “an alternate general plan land-use designation” without a vote of the people. The stated purpose is to avoid conflict between schools and agricultural uses. Measure C supporters say that this will encourage urban sprawl and amount to thousands of acres being redeveloped for urban use.
“That’s a terrible loophole for three reasons,” Bennett said. “It’s unlimited in size. It could extend miles out from the school. And it’s not just existing schools, but school sites, which can refer to planned school sites on a map. They could have said ‘within a quarter-mile of existing schools built by 2016,’ but they specifically left it vague. It also doesn’t specify what kind of use the land can be redesignated for.”
“I say there’d be one or two projects that might happen in the county in a 20-year time frame,” Jensen said. “We want to make it available because those projects are places where they’re already surrounded. They have a school on one side and houses on the other. These are places where it’s becoming hard to farm. Is it fair that a farmer should have to give his land back to the bank?”
Both measures allow for the development of food processing plants on agricultural lands, but Measure C limits it to 12 acres while Measure F allows up to 225 acres. A recent study conducted on behalf of the Economic Development Collaborative — Ventura County found that allowing the construction of 225 acres for food processing plants could generate over $180 million of increased value annually to farm lands.
Both measures allow some farm land to be redesignated as open space. Measure C limits the amount that can be redesignated to 40 acres per year per land owner. Measure F puts no limit on the total acreage that can be redesignated annually, but says that parcels being redesignated must be at least 40 acres unless otherwise redesignated by a vote of the people.
“There is no reason that I can see for a landowner to change from agricultural to an open space designation except to reduce the minimum lot size to a 10-acre spacing,” Jensen said. “It is … very expensive. Since Measure F does not allow a reduction of lot size below 40 acres without a public vote, it is unlikely any landowner would be interested.”
“Why wouldn’t they put some limit on [the amount of land that can be redesignated]?” Bennett said. “It’s these kinds of loopholes that most voters aren’t even aware of.”
One hundred acres of agricultural land is worth about $5 million, but that same amount of land rezoned for the construction of residential subdivisions is worth $30 million, according to Bennett.
“They’ll hire the best land use lawyers in the country to come in here and manipulate things to get it rezoned,” Bennett said. “Then they’ll try to lower the parcel sizes, and anytime a landowner can make the lot smaller it increases urban sprawl.”
Measure F also requires an economic impact report to be conducted. Measure C has no such stipulation.
“I think that’s one of those things that they just put on for confusion,” Bennett said. “The board of supervisors can do economic studies anytime they want to.”
“I think it’s full disclosure,” Jensen said. “We want the county to see what the impact is and let the voters choose. Right now there’s really no way to look at it and see what the trade-off is. And we trust the voters will make the right choice.”
If approved, Measure F would remain in effect until 2036. Measure C would last until 2050.
“Our current county general plan expires in 2020 and the new general plan that will be adopted will expire in 2040,” Jensen said. “Twenty years is a general planning horizon. We think 34 years is too long.”
“The argument they say is that that’s too long,” Bennett said. “You can’t lock in land use in Ventura County for 30 years. And we completely agree. We’re not locking in land use, we’re locking in how the change is going to happen. We’re saying that change is going to be approved by the voters. It’s clearly become a core value in Ventura County and that’s what we want to lock in.”
There will be 10 other measures on the ballot in November that deal with urban expansion around cities. Unlike the two countywide Measures C and F that address development on county land, these city measures affect the City Urban Restriction Boundaries, or the boundaries around these cities in which land can be developed for urban uses. Most of these measures deal with extending the expiration of existing CURBs until 2050, with a few extending the expiration to 2030, and a few extending the borders of the CURB.
More information about the upcoming election and the various local measures can be found at the Ventura County Clerk and Recorder website. Residents can also check if they’re registered or find their local polling places.