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Report Viewed With Dismay in Moorpark but With Satisfaction in Ojai

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Moorpark officials greeted the 1990 census report Friday with grim dismay. It was one more indicator that the fastest-growing city in Ventura County must continue to struggle with its population boom.

Meanwhile, merchants and planners in Ojai saw the census figures as proof that their clampdown on development has succeeded in limiting the expansion of Ventura County’s slowest-growing city.

While Moorpark’s population tripled from 8,054 to 25,494, Ojai’s population rose only 12%, from 6,816 to 7,613.

While Ojai’s strict slow-growth measures strengthened its identity as a hybrid of artists’ colony and shopping district, Moorpark planners scrambled to control the incredible growth in that city of farms, industrial parks and brand-new neighborhoods.

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Before its incorporation in 1983, Moorpark was known as “Little Simi,” referring to its southeastern neighbor, Simi Valley, where the population swelled from 77,500 in 1980 to 100,217 in 1990.

Moorpark’s rural atmosphere, affordability, picturesque landscape and nearness to Los Angeles attracted many people to the area in the 1980s, officials said.

But Moorpark planners and council members said the rate of growth that occurred during the 1980s put too big a strain on city services and will not be repeated during the next decade.

“We grew too fast,” Mayor Paul Lawrason said. “The city grew beyond its capacity to handle growth.”

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So intense was the influx of new residents that in 1986, only three years after incorporating, Moorpark enacted a slow-growth ordinance that limited construction of single-family houses to 270 a year.

But in the years since, the city has found itself torn between wanting to contain growth and needing the financial benefits it can bring.

That contradiction became the key issue in the city’s first mayoral election in November, which pitted slow-growth advocate and then-Councilman Clint Harper against Lawrason, a council colleague and growth moderate.

Throughout the intense and bitter campaign, Harper attacked Lawrason for accepting contributions from builders, referring to him in one instance as a “developer’s lackey.”

Lawrason dismissed the accusations, saying the contributions meant little except that he had a broad range of support in the community. Lawrason said he believed some development was necessary to help pay for city services, create jobs and boost the economy.

Lawrason won by a large margin, but the growth issue has not died.

“It’s still a major concern,” Lawrason said. “But at the same time, I can see the other side. Economically, the city needs a reasonable amount of growth for it to flourish and to bring services to the city.”

Lawrason said he opposes a planning proposal now being studied by the City Council and its staff. While still on the council, Harper proposed an ordinance to allow residents to vote on major developments that required the city to amend its blueprint for future development, the General Plan.

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Harper said the ordinance would let residents, not the council, determine the growth of Moorpark. He has said that if the council decides not to put it on the ballot, he might wage his own campaign to do so.

And Lawrason said Moorpark is still trying to contend with increased traffic--made worse by a highway that runs through the center of town--overcrowded schools, an overtaxed sewer system and a lack of recreational facilities.

By contrast, the city of Ojai adopted its Growth Management Plan in 1979.

That plan limited yearly housing allocations to four multifamily units and 12 single-family residences through 1994. The total must drop to 15 residences by 1996 and 14 through the year 2000.

Ojai’s officials and merchants greeted news of their city’s slow expansion with some satisfaction. The plan worked, they said.

“I’m not surprised,” Mayor Nina V. Shelley said. “The objective here has been to minimize the pollution that goes into the air from traffic. People are inclined to think of Ojai as elitist and holding its growth down for other reasons.”

But Friday, outside Valley View Realty in Ojai, heavy midafternoon traffic streamed down California 33 against a background of mountains made into flat silhouettes by the smog-browned sky.

“See this road out here? It can’t take much more,” agent Rosalind Wright said. The traffic has been increasing steadily despite the building restrictions, she said.

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Slow growth has meant slow realty sales in Ojai, but it also has forced housing prices higher than they are elsewhere in the county and preserved the quiet atmosphere that makes it attractive to home buyers, said Wright’s co-worker, Patricia Johnson.

Some things about Ojai have changed despite the restrictions, said lifelong resident Julie Titus, a sales clerk at a downtown boutique.

Tourism has boomed there, as visitors from Los Angeles County have discovered Ojai’s shops and art galleries.

Titus said it now takes her 12 minutes to drive a short distance through traffic in the downtown area, which she covered in much less time 10 years ago.

“I’m close with all the merchants, and most of them are really unhappy about the traffic,” Titus said. “I avoid going down (the) main street as much as possible.”

Fellow merchant Khaled Al-Awar said that while the slow-growth ordinances keep growth at a minimum, the boom in out-of-town visitors has forever changed the face of Ojai.

“People have a definite commitment for Ojai to stay the same,” said Al-Awar, who moved there from Chicago eight years ago and now owns the Ojai Playhouse, an art gallery and a men’s clothing store.

But while Ojai merchants welcome the increased commerce, they don’t want their success to alter the city’s identity.

“The merchants are Ojai residents first and merchants second,” Al-Awar said. “We will fight to keep and maintain Ojai the way it is.

“Where we differentiate is some people don’t like to see too many outsiders, but we think anybody is welcome to come here. It’s good for business.

“We cannot put a gate down on Highway 33.”

Correspondent Thia Bell contributed to this report.

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