Unlikely Duo Teamed Up to Protect Greenbelt


City Councilman Steve Bennett is a government teacher who once doubted the power of the people.

Richard Francis is a lawyer and former Ventura mayor so addicted to that concept that he still dabbles in local politics five years after leaving office.

Together, the unlikely duo pushed into law one of the most restrictive land-use policies in the state, a law that prohibits development on farmland in and around the city for the next 35 years unless voters decide otherwise.


The architects of that law, which goes into effect today, are two slow-growth politicians who used the initiative process to prevent developers from gobbling up vast tracts of agricultural land.

Beyond that, however, the pair have very little in common.

“We really disagree on most things,” Francis said with a laugh during a recent interview. “But there is a mutual respect for the reasons we disagree.”

Bennett is a 45-year-old teacher and counselor at Nordhoff High School in Ojai. The tall, bespectacled educator was drawn into politics after a change in political philosophy struck him six years ago.

He had lectured to students for years about democracy: a system of government in which the people--not an autocrat or a select group--share in directing their community. Trouble is, he never really believed that ordinary citizens could stand up to wealthy developers and change public policy.

“I used to operate under the assumption that these forces for development . . . were something beyond my influence and control,” he said in an interview after the November election. “I just thought, ‘Ventura is going to look like San Fernando Valley. It is inevitable.’ ”

But his point of view shifted in 1989 when an unlikely trio of environmentalists was elected to the City Council. The lesson for the teacher was that citizens can wield as much political clout as the forces for development--a lesson reinforced by the recent greenbelt fight, he said.


“The other side is more of a paper tiger than you think,” he said. “They are only money . . . community values can come through. That is a real liberating thought.”

Francis was drawn to politics for different reasons.

An impeccably dressed attorney who runs his own personal-injury law practice in Oxnard, the 47-year-old savors the political game and enjoys the ability to create change.

“I have a strong internal drive to be involved,” he said. “I have this basic desire for government to work better. I have always had this conviction that you cannot expect anyone else to do it if you can’t do it yourself.”

Francis served as Ventura’s mayor from 1989 to 1991. He stepped down in 1991 to spend more time with his family, but he has remained active in local politics.

He ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the water district board in 1994 and led a failed 1993 campaign against his old council nemesis, Jim Monahan.

“I never left,” he said, “I don’t think I can leave. . . . It is an addiction.”

What brought the two unlikely allies together was concern over the city’s urban growth.

Two years ago, a newly elected pro-growth council began publicly entertaining proposals from developers to build houses on a greenbelt in east Ventura.


“That’s when we decided we can’t trust the council to protect the greenbelts,” said Bennett. “That’s when we said, ‘We’re going to do an initiative.’ And our target date was November of 1995.”

Francis also harbored a deep concern about the future of the city’s greenbelts, which he felt were not adequately protected by the city’s Comprehensive Plan when it was reviewed in 1989.

“It got watered down to a five-year plan,” he said. “That is hardly a protection--that is a planning horizon for an astute developer.”

The pair joined forces, along with a group of concerned residents, early last year after a Ventura couple hired Francis to write an initiative aimed at halting the construction of 437 homes on a lemon orchard near their home.

Francis expanded on their idea, drafting Measure J, an initiative that would prohibit any development on the city’s greenbelts unless approved by the majority of city voters.

In March, Francis learned of a similar Napa County law that had been upheld by the state Supreme Court. Since his measure was legally untested, he drafted a second initiative--Measure I--based on the Napa law.


Measure I was the initiative approved by the voters in November, ending a bitter and expensive campaign in which local farmers fought to defeat the twin initiatives.

“What is really fun is to give voice to frustrated community values,” Bennett said. “There’s this big huge mass of people that have these values, but they are busy, they’re home, working jobs or taking care of their families and City Council stuff is a small little blip on the radar screen.

“Yet, at the same time, they really do want greenbelts protected. . . . I am just trying to do whatever it takes to turn that into a reality.”

But those sentiments have been challenged by some residents, particularly those in the farming community.

“There’s an adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

Laird said the “cavalier” campaign led by Francis and Bennett looked out solely for their own interests--not for those of the farmers, who are also members of the community.


Ventura County growers argued that the laws unfairly restricted their property rights. They banded together and raised roughly $165,000 to fight the greenbelt measures, outspending Bennett’s and Francis’ group by about 5 to 1 in one of the costliest campaigns in city history.

“They ran a helluva campaign,” Francis said. “I am surprised that we beat them, given that kind of onslaught.”

One of the more memorable aspects of the bitter greenbelt campaign was the flurry of glossy campaign mailers that filled residents’ mailboxes in the days leading up to the election.

Two flyers described the initiative backers, presumably Francis and Bennett, as sharks and bureaucratic octopuses who had wrapped their tentacles around City Hall--depictions that made Bennett snicker when he opened his own mailbox.

“Why is it I am always something from the ocean?” he quipped. “There is some kind of sea-phobia.

“Those kind of things you grin about,” he said, after a long pause. “There’s nothing you can do about them, they’re character assassinations. But it does introduce a level of incivility.”


Laird said he is still angry that the two never consulted with local farmers before qualifying the greenbelt measures for the November ballot.

“The end never justifies the means,” Laird said. “And that is probably the biggest difference in how those two gentlemen try to reach their goals and how others reach their goals.”

But Bennett and Francis, who were criticized on that point throughout the campaign, said they did not consult the farmers because the pair knew that farmers would not support the effort to protect the greenbelt.

After the election, the farmers vowed to file lawsuits against the measure. But none has been filed yet, Laird said.

With a hard-fought campaign behind them, Bennett and Francis have both moved on to other business.

Francis helped draft an identical measure for slow-growth supporters in neighboring Oxnard. Meanwhile, calls have trickled in to his office from Thousand Oaks and Diamond Bar residents seeking information about how to thwart development by initiative.


“I know there is interest out there,” he said.

Bennett has tried to appease growers by proposing a right-to-farming ordinance to protect farmers from nuisance complaints from neighbors who complain about dust or the smell of fertilizer.

And he is focusing his attention on supporting the proposed Buenaventura Mall expansion, a project being contested by an initiative on the March ballot.

“You can never sit back in politics and go, ‘Oh, you’re done,’ ” he said. “You have to constantly be defending it, constantly improving it. . . . If we want greenbelt protection, it is going to take constant work.”