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 (SOAR) initiative before voters this fall.
The vote sidesteps a probable legal challenge to the 45,300 signatures gathered countywide, but sets the stage for what is widely expected to be an intense political debate on the pros and cons of "ballot-box zoning."
The measure, one of several that SOAR organizers have planned for November, would take the power to rezone farmland and open space away from county politicians and put it directly in voters' hands.
SOAR also is attempting to pass measures this fall preventing the cities of Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Moorpark from expanding beyond a set of designated borders without voters' approval.
SOAR volunteers had gathered more than enough signatures 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 put the initiative on the ballot themselves.
"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 with Supervisor Kathy Long.
In their vote, county supervisors converted the initiative into a county ordinance--one that is somewhat at odds with a rival, county-led effort to address the same concerns.
In addition to SOAR, the supervisors considered a second approach to growth control Tuesday, one recommended by the Agriculture Policy Working Group, a committee of planners, environmentalists, politicians and building industry representatives.
And they approved both, leaving many observers befuddled about the legal and political repercussions of backing both approaches.
The vote on SOAR brought dozens of residents--for and against the initiative--to speak at the county boardroom.
"What we have is an initiative signed by the well-intentioned majority on behalf of a virulent antigrowth minority," said Kioren Moss of the Coalition for Community Planning, an anti-SOAR group.
Others disagreed, saying that it would be a miscarriage of justice for a 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. "If you believe in democracy, I think you will vote approval."