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Eleven Year Battle Comes to a Successful Close

Eleven Year Battle Comes to a Successful Close

Crusaders win Camarillo development battle with tactics and grit

Kathleen Wilson, kathleen.wilson@vcstar.com Published 11:27 a.m. PT Oct. 25,

2017 | Updated 4:03 p.m. PT Oct. 25, 201

Louise Roberts and Merrill Berge pose near the agricultural land they preserved. They celebrated victory when a judge declared Measure J, which protects the land from development for more than 30 years, valid.

10-2017 VCSTar Article

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Tactics and grit help pair win development battle
KATHLEEN WILSON KATHLEEN.WILSON@VCSTAR.COM

Activists Merrill Berge and Louise Roberts campaigned online and on foot for years to save farmland at the base of the Conejo Grade in Camarillo.

So both were relieved last month when a judge OK’d the deal that allows an initiative protecting that property to stand for more than 30 years. Entitled Measure J, the initiative gives voters the final say before hundreds of acres of farmland sweeping down from the grade may be converted to urban use.

“We won,” Roberts says. “We did it.”

Tad Dougherty, a Camarillo retiree who helped organize the opposition, said the two women are largely responsible for the success of the movement. They didn’t do it alone, he said, but led the effort and kept it going.

Their campaign stopped the Conejo Creek development, Camarillo Councilwoman Charlotte Craven said.

The project called for 2,500 housing units plus commercial and industrial construction, institutional uses and recreational and open space on 895 acres.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any action for many, many years,” Craven said.

Roberts, 71, and Berge, 61, said they waged the land-use battle with person-to-person contact, tech skills, fund-raising and research.

Both founded organizations for slow-growth causes after moving to Camarillo with their families but didn’t meet until 2010. They joined forces that year via Save Open-space & Agricultural Resources. The SOAR group launched drives requiring voter approval to develop farmland and open space in the 1990s, and the electorate renewed them last year to 2050.

The two women shared a passion for preserving farmland and the iconic view from the top of the grade plus they had concerns over increased traffic from the development. But they contributed different talents to the fight.

Roberts handled communication, amassing a database with thousands of e-mail addresses for the Stop Conejo Creek organization she formed with a few neighbors. Drawing on skills developed during her teaching career, Roberts used visuals and simple language to convey her message. She tapped into social media and delivered blasts of pictorial emails.

Berge focused on research, digging into environmental analyses of the project. She is detail oriented, enjoys talking to people and liked the work.

“These kinds of efforts expand your world,” said the founder of Camarillo Sustainable Growth. “They help you become a bigger part of the community.”

The two hashed out plans on the phone, during late-afternoon chats at a Camarillo restaurant and at Roberts’ home. On Saturday mornings for a couple years, they regularly staked out the farmers’ market in Camarillo. Standing by message boards 8 feet tall, they talked with shoppers and collected signatures for a petition against the development.

With the assistance of a core group from three key neighborhoods, the activists turned out overflow crowds for meetings of the Planning Commission and City Council.

“Our motto became, ‘Fill every seat at every hearing every time,’ ” Berge said.

By the time the court settlement was signed, Roberts had been working on the cause for 11 years and Berge for seven.

The journey ended in mid-September when Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent O’Neill approved a settlement proposed by legal counsel for the plaintiffs.

Calleguas Land Co., a major owner of the land in question, and Camarillo resident Wayne Davey sued the city last year over the legality of the measure.

O’Neill refused to knock the initiative off the November 2016 ballot, saying the largely procedural flaws were not enough. But he was willing to entertain the plaintiffs’ argument that the language had misled the voters in a phase of litigation that began after the election. Then, about two weeks before the final hearing in September, the plaintiffs offered to settle.

They allowed the measure to stand, saying they were satisfied with the defense’s position that the state had authority over annexations of land into cities.

Berge and Roberts saw it as a big victory for their side. The initiative does not expire until 2050 and the judge dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning it is final and cannot be brought back to court.

The two activists said they can relax now.

“It was 11 years of intense focus,” Roberts said. “I didn’t sleep. I didn’t have a life.”

She has lived in Ventura County since the early 1970s, moving from the Los Angeles area to Oxnard to be close to her job at the now-closed Camarillo State Hospital. About 10 years later, she bought a house in Woodland Greens on the edge of Camarillo. The neighborhood lies near the farmland she wants to protect.

“That to me was Camarillo, farmland and a view to the sea,” said Roberts, who moved to the Santa Rosa Valley a few years ago.

“To think that was going to be plowed over … just broke my heart.”  People said, ‘You can’t fight City Hall.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ ”

Roberts had a track record of success by the time the development was proposed in the mid-2000s.

She fought plans by the Sammis Corp. to build in the same area in the early 1990s and lobbied city officials to get large trucks off Pleasant Valley Road. Known for tenacity, she was called “Bulldog” at the school where she worked in Woodland Hills.

Her husband, Mike Roberts, helped out, too.

“When you’re with Louise, you’re with the cause,” he said.

Berge balanced the campaign with a small landscaping business and raising two children. She had flexibility because her 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son were in school, she said, but often toiled late into the night.

“Every day I tried to do something more,” she said.

Berge, who had grown up in a  farming community near Seattle, said she felt heart-sick when she learned 2,500 homes were proposed.

“I realized I had to bury my head in the sand or ignore it or live with it or do something about it,” she said.

She and her husband, Jay Clancy, had moved to Camarillo in 2000 from the Studio City area for the quality of the local schools, Berge said. She had worked in sales and marketing for sports-related businesses in Los Angeles, training that translated to her campaign over farmland.

“When you are in sales, you are thinking how does this impact this person,” she said. “That helped me frame the issues that would impact the community and people in particular.”

Berge and Roberts say they don’t oppose all development but that it doesn’t belong at this spot. When they started promoting that view, they tapped into an opinion many Camarillo residents already had, Berge said.

The voters, of course, don’t own the property. But the community should be able to weigh in when owners want to change the purpose of land designated for agriculture in the city general plan, Berge said.

Chuck Cohen, an attorney representing Calleguas, has a different take.

Private property owners still have rights, he said, but SOAR has tightened their options beyond the normal constraints of zoning laws.

“It is so difficult to get an opportunity with your property when you have to go to voters who have nothing to lose by saying no,” he said.

Now that the battle is over, both women are taking up pastimes they had set aside or spent less time doing.

Roberts is working on tile and mosaic projects and putting together recipe books and picture albums.

Berge plans to spend time on other community causes. They include serving as a board member for the Ventura County Resource Conservation District and playing the role of famous women in a history project sponsored by the American Association of University Women.

The low point for both women came when a signature drive for the ballot initiative had to be redone. They had to orchestrate the drive for 6,600 signatures twice because of an error on a form, Berge said.

The repeat had to be done in four weeks to meet the deadline, so there was no time to sit around and cry, Roberts said.

They would have done it a third time or modified the measure if the lawsuit had gone against them, Berge said.

But it didn’t.

“We were very, very happy,” Berge said.

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 Merrill Berge point to land she and her activist friend Louise Roberts helped preserve from development.   COURTESY PHOTO

Sunday, 10/29/2017 Pag.A01 (c) Ventura County Star

 

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