Alternative Proposal Allows for More Exceptions

Newspaper Article from the ACORN:

SOAR alternative moves forward

Proposal would also extend restrictions but allow more exceptions

By Becca Whitnall

Since October, a group of open space enthusiasts has been gathering signatures to put on county and city ballots measures that would extend sprawl restrictions, but now the group is facing a challenge from an unfamiliar foe.

The Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business is about to start gathering signatures for its own version of an open space initiative, said the organization’s executive director, Lynn Jensen, who is the owner of the largest civil engineering firm in Ventura County.

Prompting both groups’ actions is the sunsetting of the county’s 20-year-old SOAR initiatives. Eight cities have initiatives in addition to the county initiative.

The first group’s initiative would be a straightforward extension of existing restrictions, which require any attempts to rezone open space to go to a vote of the people.

“The initiative is essentially keeping things the way they have been,” Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a supporter of the measure, said in October. “It keeps the urban boundary around the city that’s been there since 1998.”

First passed by the City of Ventura in 1995, the SOAR initiative says any land deemed open space, agricultural or rural cannot be rezoned without a majority vote of the public. In 1996, Thousand Oaks voters included “parkland” on the list of protected land-use designations.

The countywide SOAR initiative was approved in 1998 and governs unincorporated areas.

But COLAB says the initiative doesn’t do enough to protect farmers and farmland, which, like undeveloped areas, is considered open space.

“Agriculture is a very fluid and changing kind of business. It’s also very risky,” Jensen said. “We put in really strong policy changes that strengthen agriculture.”

The COLAB version would make it easier for agricultural businesses to develop water infrastructure, farmworker housing and processing facilities on their properties, she said.

Though the original SOAR proposal allows for farmworker housing on farmland, there is language saying it should be located within the cities wherever possible, Jensen said.

“The problem is, the cost to build in the city is high and farmers already own land they can build on,” she said.

In addition, the COLAB initiative would govern open space for 20 years, as opposed to 30.

Jensen said her group worked with the SOAR group for about seven months to try to adopt the changes, and while the groups agreed to some additional wording, the SOAR initiative didn’t go far enough, she said.

Supervisor Steve Bennett, who is also involved with the SOAR efforts, said in an email to the Acorn that the group “will comment on the COLAB initiative after we have completed our comprehensive legal review of the document.”

Parks said the measures provided for in the COLAB version allow for less protection of open space and were written by and for developers.

“Our opponents are developers,” she said. “You have to look at who are the people who are putting it forward, and I think that speaks for itself.”

The county supervisor added that backers of that proposal stand to make money by doing away with the county’s traditional SOAR initiative.

The next step for the coalition is to gather signatures. Both groups have until March 29 to qualify for the county ballot with 19,987 qualified signatures, according to the Ventura County Elections Division.

As COLAB prepares to begin the process, SOAR has enough signatures to qualify in some cities and is close for the countywide initiative, Parks said.

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