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Leading Slow-Growth County is Fast Expanding

Daryl Kelley, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
July 25, 2004

Ventura County became a pioneer in growth control when voters threw up walls to stop cities from sprawling across some of California's richest farmland.

But that doesn't mean the prosperous, coastal county of 800,000 residents isn't growing -- and fast.

For the last four years, Ventura County has grown faster than Los Angeles and Orange counties, and at about the same brisk pace as California overall. Indeed, the county's population is growing faster than all but 22 of California's 57 other counties.

Throughout Ventura County, bulldozers are rumbling in response to a pent-up demand for housing that has spurred the biggest building boom since the go-go 1980s.

New houses costing $500,000 to $1 million are regularly sold even before they are built as affluent out-of-county migrants flock there for safe communities, good schools and a family-friendly atmosphere.

Yet, Ventura County remains the semirural alternative to Los Angeles that the San Fernando Valley was in the 1950s and Orange County was in the 1960s.

That hasn't happened by accident. In 1969, city and county officials adopted the landmark Guidelines for Orderly Development that forced growth into cities and protected the farmland between them.

In the 1980s, most cities capped growth at a few hundred dwellings a year. Then during the last decade, county and city voters approved strict growth boundaries around cities.

Together, the measures form the most advanced locally imposed system of growth control in the nation, planning experts say.

Other affluent cities and counties around the state are following suit.

"Ventura County is part of an attempt by lots of very desirable areas to control growth," said demographic researcher Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History." "It's an elitist strategy. The irony is that the elitists are so numerous that they prompt growth by themselves."

In eastern Ventura County, tens of thousands of commuters drive to Los Angeles each morning for work.

And thousands of Santa Barbara workers have moved to Ventura County because they couldn't afford the $1-million tract houses in their hometown.

Evidence of increasing urban congestion can be seen on the freeways as rush-hour commuters endure twice as much stop-and-go traffic as they did a decade ago.

"If somebody believes Ventura County is growing slowly, they're wrong," said Bill Watkins, director of the Economic Forecast Project at UC Santa Barbara. "They're still building a lot of homes out there -- in Moorpark and Simi Valley and Camarillo and Oxnard."

After seven years of recession in the 1990s, growth is evident in nearly every Ventura County community.

Its 10 cities have issued 21,000 home-building permits in the last six years. An additional 20,000 dwellings are included in 27 major projects planned or beginning construction around the county, a Times survey found.

And thousands more houses are in the pipeline in smaller developments.

Since the 2000 census, Ventura County's population has surged by nearly 50,000, reaching 802,400 in January, a 1.6% annual growth rate, according to the state Department of Finance.

That compares with about 1.5% in Los Angeles and Orange counties. At that rate, Ventura County will have about 885,000 residents by 2010.

"Ventura County has definitely been riding a wave for the last several years, and it's not going to slow down anytime soon," said Steve Kinney, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Oxnard.

"The perception is that Ventura County is slow growth," he said. "But the county has kept pace with the L.A. region for some years now."

In Oxnard, about 5,000 dwellings were built in the last six years, and about 9,000 more are in the planning or early construction stages.

"You have a lot of people coming in from Santa Barbara and West L.A., because there are fewer and fewer places in coastal Southern California where you can still build houses and afford to live," said developer Dave White.

White is completing a 416-home golf course project, is building a movie theater complex in downtown Oxnard and is beginning the largest mixed-use project in county history along the Ventura Freeway.

Homes he thought he would sell for $400,000 three years ago are selling for twice that amount, White said. His new golf course homes are priced at $1 million.

But even as Ventura County bustles with construction, officials are beginning to address the question: What next? When the cities are full, will growth stop?

During the last decade, voters in every major city passed laws that set urban boundaries and took the authority to expand beyond them away from elected city councils and gave it to themselves. Ventura's pioneering initiative in 1995 was challenged as unconstitutional but upheld by the state Supreme Court.

"Ventura County is the only county in the country where essentially every city has growth boundaries created by the voters," said William Fulton, a senior scholar at the School of Planning, Policy & Development at USC, president of Solimar Research Group and a member of the Ventura City Council. "And that is laid on top of the Guidelines for Orderly Development that date back 35 years and were considered very forward-looking at the time."

In another decade, experts say, nearly all the vacant land within Ventura County's 10 cities will be used up, and that is when the true result of anti-sprawl policies will be felt.

"We're not up against the wall yet," Fulton said. "But we'll be against that wall in five or 10 years, depending on the city. And I think the voters are just going to say no to [outward] growth, unless a very compelling argument is made for it."

Indeed, a Times poll in 1997 found that two-thirds of residents favored slowing growth and limiting development even if that hurts business and cuts jobs. Since then, several elections and polls have shown similar support for growth controls.

Ballot measures that would have allowed large new communities in hills and canyons outside city growth boundaries have already failed in Moorpark and Santa Paula. And in Ventura, a landowner-backed measure that would have expanded the city within a long-standing growth sphere was also soundly defeated.

"No developer I know is going to tackle that sort of thing anymore," said public relations expert Tom Tomlin, who represents large builders throughout California. "It's very difficult to win those."

Meanwhile, environmentalists are backing a fall ballot measure that would provide $250 million to buy vacant land and development rights with a 1/4-cent sales tax for 10 years. A two-thirds majority is needed for approval.

"A fundamental core value of the citizens of Ventura County is to preserve this semirural feeling and the buffers between the cities," said county Supervisor Steve Bennett, coauthor of the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measures. "It's not like a fad. People are not going to say in a few years, 'Now I'd like to have urban sprawl. Now it's OK for this place to look like the San Fernando Valley.' "

The key element in Ventura County anti-sprawl strategies, he said, is where growth occurs, not how quickly. He cited plans by Ventura for reviving its downtown as an example of how large-scale development can occur without sprawl. About 800 dwellings in 18 projects are planned downtown so far.

"What's unique about our effort is that it's not about the rate of growth; it's about where we grow," Bennett said.

Indeed, planning experts say Ventura County cities are beginning to revamp their long-range growth strategies to accept anti-sprawl restrictions.

Some cities are supporting so-called smart growth: the clustering of homes, stores and offices in pedestrian-oriented developments and denser housing in cities as an alternative to suburban sprawl.

And others are soliciting proposals to rehabilitate old shopping centers that would include not only new stores, but condos or apartments above them.

Many of the major projects now pending in the county follow the old suburban subdivision model.

But others, such as White's $750-million RiverPark project in Oxnard melds 2,800 dwellings with a traditional main street, commercial and office buildings, a hotel and a convention center.

Planning experts say they are not overly concerned about the speed with which Ventura County is using up developable land.

In fact, the county's 1.6% growth rate is only about half the county's pace of expansion from 1950 to 1990.

"In Ventura County, growth is occurring in an orderly fashion and within the urban limits, so SOAR is doing its job," said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara. "We knew SOAR would have more of a long-term impact."

Demographer Kotkin, an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, said it was interesting to note the differences between growth in Ventura County, where the median price of a house or condo exceeds $500,000, and that in the cheaper, hotter Inland Empire.

"Look at these coastal areas -- they tend to be very affluent and have a lot of educated people who do not depend on local growth for their wealth," Kotkin said. "The elite are moving to Ventura and Orange counties, and the working class are moving to the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley, which are growing twice as fast.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens in Ventura County in 20 years or 30 years, when new workers, even highly educated ones, can't afford to live there anymore."

© 2005 by Fannie Mae Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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