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City Girds for New Round of Growing Pains

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that disturbs some slow-growth advocates, city officials are recommending that the City Council jack up Ventura’s end-of-the-century population cap Monday night to bring it in line with reality.

Almost a year ago, council members and Ventura residents backed off a proposal to change the Comprehensive Plan--the city’s chief planning document that was painfully crafted through a series of public meetings in 1989 to keep growth from spiraling out of control.

In December, the council faced the issue again, but postponed a decision until the release of a long-range plan for dealing with school overcrowding.

Currently, the Comprehensive Plan states that population should not exceed 115,000 by 2010, contingent upon the availability of water and other resources.

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To keep population growth at a steady pace, the council set an interim limit of 105,000 for 2000. City officials now recommend that the council increase that number to 110,000, since housing permits already promised to developers will bring in thousands more residents.

“Arguably the population cap of 105,000 that now exists has been exceeded when we account for housing allocations already awarded,” said Everett Millais, director of community services.

According to the latest state Department of Finance figures, Ventura’s population is 100,313.

The population cap is significant because it determines how many new housing permits the city can dole out over the next three years. Without resolving the cap issue, the City Council can no longer give out housing permits for new projects.

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But planners and city officials emphasize that changing the number will not alter Ventura’s current pace of growth. It will simply make it accurate.

“The numbers are being changed to reflect the way we are,” said Sandy Smith, a city planning commissioner."Any time you talk about changing numbers of people, people get uptight, but it’s already happened.”

In a city where politics historically divides along growth lines, any attempt to tinker with population numbers unleashes fierce public debate. December’s public discussion on whether to raise the population cap lasted close to two hours--and ended with no decision.

“Growth is very controversial,” Millais said. “But it shouldn’t be. Aside from city control, there is a market control going on out there which really is the end influence on how much gets built.”

And the market simply is not driving growth that fast right now, he said.

But no matter what the actual population numbers are, several factors complicate the issue and inflame the controversy.

First of all, the year 2000 population benchmark is a completely arbitrary number, picked out of the air in a council discussion eight years ago.

“There is no basis for the year 2000 benchmark,” Millais said. “It became an artificial limit and it remains an artificial limit. It was put in at the will of the council, but there is no basis for that in terms of background, resource constraints or anything.”

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Secondly, city and planning officials say the public and some council members treat the Comprehensive Plan--the city’s blueprint for development--as if it were carved in stone.

The 2-inch thick document is, indeed, a binding legal document. But it is also a working document, said Planning Commissioner Smith, who plans to attend the council meeting Monday night. “It was something meant as a guide for the city as it evolves.”

But City Councilman Gary Tuttle and other slow-growth advocates argue that once the council opens the door to changing the plan, the city could lose control of managing growth.

Millais pointed out, however, that Ventura’s growth has spurted and leveled out. Although growth exploded in the 1980s, making Ventura the 15th fastest-growing city in California in 1994, growth has now slowed to a modest 1% a year.

Council members have expressed varying opinions on the population cap increase.

Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures sees regulating growth as an exercise in futility.

“There is so much said about our tampering with numbers,” Measures said. “But the bottom line is that growth is inherent, and we can attempt to manage it, but we cannot stop it.”

Tuttle said he might support a smaller increase in the population cap, but not the 110,000 number.

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“They just keep changing it to fit their development needs,” Tuttle said.

Councilman Jim Friedman, who supported raising the 2000 limit last year, wants to hear from the public Monday night before reaching a conclusion. He expects a large turnout at the council meeting.

“Growth is a very emotional issue in Ventura,” Friedman said. “It is tremendously politically charged. It’s what election years turn on . . . and not coincidentally, this is an election year.”

On Monday night, the council will also begin discussing a master plan for the downtown area known as the “triangle site.” The land is located south of the railroad tracks to the west of San Jon Road and the Chart House restaurant. It is one of the most valuable undeveloped sites remaining in Ventura, with its view of the ocean and proximity to the downtown. Although the land is set aside for hotel development, city officials are proposing allowing 390 apartment units on an 8-acre parcel of the property.

In a related item, city staff is recommending that the council not initiate an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan regarding school crowding, saying that the long-range school plan, the $81-million June school bond measure, and other implementation measures adequately address school capacity.

The council will meet at 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 501 Poli St.


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