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Petition No Longer SOAR Point; Measure OKd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County voters this fall will consider some of the strictest growth-control laws in Southern California following a split decision by county leaders Tuesday to place a hotly debated citizens’ initiative on the ballot.

With flawed petitions threatening to derail the farmland preservation movement, the Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to place the countywide Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiative before voters this fall.

The vote sidesteps a probable legal challenge to the 45,300 signatures gathered countywide, and sets the stage for what is widely expected to be an intense political debate about the pros and cons of “ballot-box zoning.”

In addition, the board voted to proceed with a study of an alternative approach to growth control and to poll voters in November on their support for that effort. The alternative, developed by a countywide task force, is somewhat at odds with the SOAR initiative.

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The SOAR measure, one of several that organizers have planned for the fall, would take the power to rezone farmland and open space away from county politicians, putting it directly in the hands of voters.

SOAR is also attempting to pass measures preventing the cities of Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Moorpark from expanding beyond a set of designated borders without approval from voters.

SOAR volunteers had gathered 70% more signatures than needed to qualify the countywide initiative for the November ballot, according to a random sample conducted by county elections officials.

But after a Ventura lawyer threatened last week to have the signatures thrown out in court because the petition format violated state election law, SOAR leaders lobbied county officials to place the initiative on the ballot themselves.

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“I think the public is really tired of wanting things to be done, and not getting them due to technicalities,” said Supervisor Frank Schillo, who supported the measure along with Supervisors John Flynn and Susan Lacey.

But opponents said the elected board should resist being swept away by the political groundswell for the measure.

“We are on extremely dangerous ground if we begin acting on emotions,” said Supervisor Judy Mikels, who voted against the measure along with Supervisor Kathy Long.

The entire board agreed on one thing Tuesday: launching a study into the recommendations of the Agriculture Policy Working Group, a committee of planners, environmentalists, politicians and building industry representatives.

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The county-led group, which has been meeting for more than a year to draft a set of strategies for preserving the farm industry, has some striking differences from the competing SOAR measures.

By approving both SOAR and the working group study, the board left many observers befuddled about the legal and political repercussions of backing both approaches.

County leaders were initially set to vote on whether to place the working group’s recommendations on the fall ballot for voters on an advisory basis.

But instead, Long made a last-minute proposal to simply begin enacting the recommendations. The proposals include forming legally binding greenbelts between the cities and convincing cities to approve limits to their borders that only voters could change.

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Supervisors unanimously agreed to take the first step, studying where the county’s 10 cities should set their boundaries. The cities would still have to sign off and agree to pay for such a study for it to happen.

Then, a split board proceeded to add a ballot measure asking voters what they think of the working group’s strategies. That would appear on the same ballot with the SOAR initiative.

The advisory vote was necessary to secure three votes for SOAR.

Schillo had previously endorsed the initiative, but only if there was an open space district to ease concerns that landowners would be stripped of their right to develop their property. He stated last week that he would only vote to place SOAR on the ballot if the board approved an advisory vote on such a district.

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The concept was part of the Working Group’s recommendations, though less prominent than it will now be on the ballot.

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The vote on SOAR drew a crowd of advocates and detractors to the boardroom.

“What we have is an initiative signed by the well-intentioned majority on behalf of a virulent anti-growth minority,” said Kioren Moss of the Coalition for Community Planning, an anti-SOAR group.

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“What’s before you is not the issue of putting an initiative on the ballot, but whether you’re going to usurp the process to put this on the ballot,” said Mike Saliba of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn.

Others disagreed, saying it would be a miscarriage of justice for such an overwhelmingly popular initiative to be rebuffed due to a legal technicality.

“If you believe in the people, I think you will vote approval,” said Jean Harris, an Oxnard activist who sat on the Working Group and believes it is compatible with SOAR.

By placing both SOAR and the working group recommendations on the ballot, county leaders now find themselves in the awkward position of officially supporting two ballot measures looking to accomplish the same thing in different ways.

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Schillo, the east county conservative, and Flynn, the west county liberal, will join forces to write the arguments in favor of both SOAR and the working group strategies.

“I don’t think they’re competing,” Schillo said. “I think they’re two different things. One is an advisory vote, and another is the real thing.”

Moreover, the SOAR ballot, if approved, would supersede the Working Group’s recommendations, according to County Counsel James McBride. That means that any work and expense county officials put toward the group’s strategies could be for naught if it does not comply with SOAR.

SOAR leader Richard Francis said Tuesday’s showdown was simply the opening bell in what should prove to be a heated political showdown come this fall.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

How They Voted

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors oted 3 to 2 to place the countywide Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative before voters this fall.

Against

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Kathy Long

Judy Mikels

For

Frank Schillo

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John Flynn

Susan Lacey

‘We are on extremely dangerous ground if we begin acting on emotions'-Mikels

‘I think the public is really tired of wanting things to be done, and not getting them due to technicalities.’ Schillo

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