Beauty of Ventura Freeway Is in Eye of the Beholder


Officials in Agoura Hills, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village believe that a 16-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway is so pretty that it merits state recognition as a scenic highway.

Yes, the Ventura Freeway.

Proponents point to majestic views of the Santa Monica Mountains beside the busy freeway as it winds through their cities. There may be some eyesores along the route, they say, but scenic highway status would help get rid of the blight.

State highway officials are considerably less impressed with the idea. In fact, they are opposed, saying that bestowing scenic highway honors on a freeway that runs past billboards, gas station signs, industrial parks and an auto mall would degrade standards throughout California.

"The intent is to showcase California's natural scenic beauty," said Bill Koval, a Caltrans landscape architect who evaluated the Ventura Freeway. "We feel it's important to maintain a high level of standards for what we tell the public is an example of California's natural scenic beauty.

"Where everything qualifies, nothing benefits."

An advisory panel that reviews scenic highway nominations will weigh these arguments during a meeting this month in Sacramento. To settle the dispute, the group is also considering a new designation--scenic urban highway.

The Ventura County Transportation Commission took no position on the proposal despite pleas from Thousand Oaks Councilman Frank Schillo, who serves on the commission.

Schillo said he does not believe that the Ventura Freeway should be ignored just because buildings sometimes block a motorist's view of the mountains. In fact, Thousand Oaks is building a multistory civic center right next to the freeway.

If such projects are well designed, there is no reason to exclude a highway that has buildings nearby, Schillo said. "There are structures along rural roads, too," he said. "There may be a barn that's unsightly. That's an obstruction, too."

Since the scenic highway program was founded in 1963, 57 California roads have been recognized. They are marked by road signs featuring a poppy, the state flower.

Before a route is recognized, local officials must prepare a plan to protect and enhance the highway's scenic beauty, usually by limiting development and barring billboards. The scenic highway designation gives local government more clout in applying for highway beautification grants.

Southern California's scenic highways include California 33 through the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai, and California 2, also known as the Angeles Crest Highway, in the mountains north of La Canada Flintridge.

Although most scenic highways are rural roads with little development nearby, the definition has been stretched, said Laura B. Johnson, a Caltrans planner who works on the program. Some highways have been honored for their engineering design or for their cultural or historic significance, she said.

Stretching the definition beyond picturesque qualities has caused problems, she said.

"People, when they hear 'scenic highways,' expect a certain level of scenic experience," Johnson said. "We need to redefine our program and maybe have different levels of scenic highways."

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