A city characterized as Ventura County's "last watering hole" for developers stood no closer to having a growth limit Tuesday after Oxnard City Council members refused to support an ordinance restricting the number of residences that could be built each year.
By a 4-1 margin, City Council members defeated a motion to direct a citizens' advisory committee drafting a new general plan for Oxnard to strike a compromise for a limit on new housing starts with local developers and representatives of a controlled growth group.
The majority of the council agreed that bowing to pressure for a slow-growth ordinance by the end of February would undermine efforts by the 23-member General Plan Advisory Committee, which has been working more than a year on recommendations for an updated general plan by June.
"We need to trust these people who come from all walks of life," said Mayor Nao Takasugi at a study session. "We're not in a position where growth will get out of control in the next six months. If at that time, we haven't gotten what we want, we can always implement some sort of ordinance."
If approved, the motion, proposed by City Councilwoman Dorothy S. Maron, would have been the first step toward enacting a growth limit in Ventura County's only city outside of Port Hueneme without restrictions on development.
Maron, who had called for Tuesday's study session, argued that an ordinance enacted by the city would stave off attempts by Citizens for Managed Growth to bring an initiative limiting growth to the voters. She said that the group, headed by Oxnard resident Scott Bollinger, has given the city "a drop-dead date of the end of February."
'Agree in the Beginning'
"I think it's more practical to agree in the beginning than to fight to the end," Maron said. "I'm trying to stop the initiative people."
She said an ordinance would probably prove less stringent than an initiative proposed by Citizens for Managed Growth, which in May began lobbying for a 400-unit annual limit on residential growth. Bollinger said the group is now considering an initiative that would limit growth to 325 units annually.
"My concern is that if the citizens do it, it may not be as well thought out as when a council does it," she said after originally suggesting that the council consider an ordinance limiting growth in October. "We should get something that nobody will love but that nobody will hate."
A report presented by the city's planning staff Tuesday contended that a growth limit is unnecessary because Oxnard is already growing at a rate well below projections and below growth rates experienced by other major cities in the county.
While the county is growing at a 21% rate, Oxnard is growing at just under 15%, well behind the 24% to 25% rate in Ventura, Camarillo, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, it said.
In the 1960s, a planning consultant projected that Oxnard would have attracted a population of at least 500,000 by this time and the current general plan projected a population of 131,000 by 1985, but the city only met that projection last year, said city planning director David Maggio.
Growth Rate Only 1.4%
He also pointed out that while the present general plan projects a growth rate of 2.8%, the city has been growing at only a rate of 1.4% since 1980 for an average increase of 498 units annually.
As for protections against the adverse affects of growth, features in the existing general plan as well as an additional protection that could be built into its successor already provide safeguards, Maggio said.
"Phasing," whereby portions of the city more suitable to development have to be developed before building permits can be granted for other portions, have protected against growth in the past and could be included in a new general plan, he said.
Additionally, the General Plan Advisory Committee is considering a feature that would require annual monitoring of the city's growth rate by council members who could cap development if it exceeded their expectations. But slow-growth forces, which packed the auditorium Tuesday, maintained that a general plan does not provide enough protection.
Bollinger of the Citizens for Managed Growth cited the city's recent endorsement of a California State University campus on unincorporated lands zoned for agriculture.
The campus "may be of substantially significant value" to the community and may warrant annexation, he said, "but it's illustrative of how we can drift away from a general plan before we even have one."
Others complained of traffic congestion, an overworked police force, people living three and four families deep in single-family dwellings and the dwindling agricultural use of the fertile Oxnard Plain.
"We don't have land in this city to waste," said Humberto Garza, chairman of the Windsor North Neighborhood Council, "We're building on prime agricultural land anytime we build in Oxnard."
The city has already approved construction of 4,625 residential units that if built in the next 12 years would result in an average increase of 385 residential units per year, said Bollinger, quoting a city document.
"Whatever we approve for construction from this point on will be on top of this," Bollinger said. "That's why we're concerned."
He also said that industrial and commercial developments already approved by the city will necessitate 13,064 new residences.
"We're now the last watering hole in the county," he said.
459 Dwellings Approved
However, Maggio refuted Bollinger's interpretation of the city document, saying that the 4,625 figure in fact reflect the total amount of residential units that could be built within city limits under existing zoning. As of last June, only 459 dwellings had been approved for construction, he said.
Developers and other interests such as the Building Industry Assn. also took exception to Bollinger's view, lauding the city's past efforts to control growth.
"Oxnard has experienced growth, but it has been nominal growth compared to other cities that have growth limits," noted Paul Tryon, a spokesman for the association.
Seeds for the conflict appear to have been sown about five years ago, when Oxnard, long the leader in sales tax revenues, began losing ground next to other cities in the county.
"We are the largest community in the county, yet we are No. 3 in sales tax next to Ventura and Thousand Oaks," said City Manager David Mora.
The city hired an economic development director and began actively courting commercial and industrial developers. Since then, the city has landed a number of big projects, including an auto mall and several large business and industrial parks.
Business Park Issue
However, resentment began to build among residents who feared the developments' impact on traffic, air pollution and prime agricultural land. By August, a city-sponsored survey found that 49% of Oxnard's residents believe that the city is growing too fast.
Anti-growth sentiments crystallized last May, when two developers proposed a 185-acre commercial development on land zoned for low-density housing near the Oxnard Airport.
The Oxnard Business Park was just "outrageous enough," Bollinger said, that it became a rallying cry for managed growth.
The development would have been located on Victoria Avenue, already the most heavily traveled thoroughfare in unincorporated Ventura County, on property next to a residential neighborhood. And despite developers' assurances to the contrary, opponents feared it would attract more traffic at the airport.
Opponents flooded a hearing before Oxnard's City Council and the project died on a split vote, with Councilwoman Maron abstaining.
Citizens for Managed Growth began circulating a petition in May to have a residential growth limit put before voters in last November's special election. Although not directly aimed at commercial or industrial development, the limit would have had the effect of curbing the number of businesses locating in Oxnard, they reasoned.
"Businesses may decide not to come here because they would not be able to find homes for their employees," said Bollinger, who lives near the airport's flight path.
But the group withdrew their bid for a 400-unit-per-year cap in October, saying it had failed to gather enough signatures to be put on the ballot. It threatened to seek an initiative for a stricter limit in the upcoming November general election, which would require fewer signatures.
Meanwhile, another business park, a 28-acre project, has been proposed for the north side of the airport on unincorporated lands that have been zoned for agriculture, and the citizens' group plans to oppose it on the same grounds as it did the Oxnard Business Park.