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SOAR Qualifies for Ballot, but Hurdles Loom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A countywide growth-control initiative has easily qualified for the November ballot--with roughly 70% more signatures than needed--but may never go before the voters unless supported by the county Board of Supervisors today.

Save Our Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR), the group pushing the measure to strictly limit development on open space and agricultural land, collected an estimated 37,813 valid signatures out of 45,300 signatures overall, county officials said Monday.

More than 82.5% of the signatures--an unusually high figure--were valid, according to the random check of 1,375 of the signatures conducted by county elections officials.

But SOAR advocates are not jumping for joy yet: The signatures are the subject of a legal challenge by a Ventura lawyer who contends that the petitions on which they were gathered violate state law.

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The attorney, Robert Chatenever, demanded last week that the county throw out the signatures due to a technical flaw on the petitions--though a significant one, he says. County officials refused, saying the matter should be left to the courts, and continued counting, setting the stage for a legal showdown.

Today, however, the issue could become moot if the Board of Supervisors agrees to place the measure on the fall ballot.

“It would be much simpler for everyone if the board just approved the measure,” said SOAR leader Steve Bennett on Monday. “We would avoid all the legal talk. We really ought to debate the essence of SOAR.”

Still, he was delighted to see that the group had collected so many valid signatures.

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“I suppose it could matter if we end up in a court of law,” he added. “We could argue how incredibly well-supported it was. But it won’t matter after [today] if the board approves it.”

In a letter to fellow board members, Supervisor John K. Flynn presented three reasons to place the measure on the ballot:

* The SOAR measure is an “overwhelming” issue of interest to county voters.

* Placing SOAR on the ballot would clear the county of legal liability stemming from Chatenever’s threats to take county officials to court.

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* Putting SOAR on the ballot will save the county money because the measure’s backers are prepared to gather signatures again and force a costly special election if they are thwarted.

SOAR backers are attempting to pass measures that would prevent Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Moorpark from expanding beyond a set of designated city borders without first obtaining voter approval.

The group also hopes to pass a countywide initiative preventing development of farmland and open space outside city boundaries unless voters sign off on it first. Essentially, rezoning questions would be put in the hands of the voters.

Supporters submitted signatures June 1 to qualify initiatives for the county, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Santa Paula for the fall ballot. The Oxnard City Council has agreed to place the measure on the ballot, and the Camarillo City Council has agreed to make SOAR into law if the group can gather enough signatures to make the ballot.

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