In Victory, SOAR Seeks Sense of Permanence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flush with optimism after scoring a huge victory over the Ventura County establishment, the leaders of the SOAR growth control campaign vowed Wednesday to turn their grass-roots coalition into a permanent nonprofit organization.

Former Ventura Mayor Richard Francis said the network of slow-growth activists behind the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources movement has talked about staying together after passing a sweeping set of county and city measures in Tuesday's election to stop urban sprawl.

Though the group has yet to discuss what its specific goals would be, Francis said it could become a Southern California version of the Greenbelt Alliance, an organization that has spearheaded numerous successful growth control campaigns in the Bay Area.

"One of the key issues of SOAR is about power, an assault on the traditional power sources in the county," Francis said. "I do think we'll stick together, but what we'll do, I don't know. I could foresee taking the strength that we have here and trying to develop a Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo chapter."

Frustrated SOAR opponents, meanwhile, continued to maintain that the measures will lead to higher home prices, traffic congestion and an actual loss of agricultural land within cities.

"It's really a shame that the result of all this is going to be increased pressure to develop the farmland on the Oxnard Plain," said Susan Eastman, executive director of the rival Coalition for Community Planning. "I was driving through there this morning, and it was just beautiful."

County voters overwhelmingly supported Measure B, the county SOAR initiative, which prevents politicians from rezoning farmland and open space outside cities without voter approval through 2020. It garnered 62.6% of the vote, despite a costly campaign by the anti-SOAR coalition, a group primarily bankrolled by farmers and developers that hired telemarketers to call county voters the night before the election.

Voters also showed strong support for municipal SOAR measures preventing cities from expanding beyond a set of designated borders without a public vote. These measures received 68% of the vote in Camarillo, 70% in Oxnard, 70% in Simi Valley and 67% in Thousand Oaks. Only in Santa Paula, which has been engaged in a debate concerning expanding its borders, did SOAR fail, with 34% of the vote.

"This will preserve our environment for the next 20 years," said Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Linda Parks, who spearheaded her city's SOAR drive. "It's a historic measure. It unites the east and west county, and really shows the mandate that people are not going to stand for urban sprawl."

SOAR foes conceded Wednesday that their opposition campaign had faced hardship from the start, and that they had trouble raising the money needed to counter years of grass-roots organizing by slow-growth activists. Farmers, still struggling financially from the damage caused by El Nino-powered storms earlier this year, did not contribute as generously as was anticipated.

As a result, the anti-SOAR group was only able to raise $300,000 heading into the final days of the election--the same amount as pro-SOAR forces, who got most of their money from local residents and small-business owners.

"I gotta be frank: Going into this, there was a 40% differential, based on the polling we did," said Rob Roy of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. "They [SOAR leaders] had been at this for years, and we had a lot of ground to make up. We did a pretty good job. I just wish we had more money and resources."

Roy added that SOAR opponents have not discussed trying to derail the measures in the courts, but left open the possibility.

Eastman blamed GOP Assembly candidate Tony Strickland for SOAR's lopsided win.

She charged that Strickland confused conservatives by attacking Democrat Roz McGrath, his opponent in the 37th Assembly District race, for supporting the concept of farmland preservation on one hand but opposing SOAR on the other.

"Tony Strickland had a lot of virulent pieces against Roz, and I think that clearly eroded our support," Eastman said. "A lot of Tony's base was our base."

Strickland campaign manager Joe Giardiello dismissed the accusations Wednesday as a desperate attempt to blame others for an inevitable loss.

"SOAR was going to pass huge everywhere, just judging from the polls we did," Giardiello said. "I don't think it's accurate to say we influenced the outcome. I haven't seen a breakdown, but it looks like SOAR did just as well outside the 37th."

Eastman also defended anti-SOAR placards the coalition placed throughout the county that urged voters to reject Measure B to avoid "new taxes."

Though SOAR in no way establishes new taxes, Eastman argued that the claim was accurate because slowing growth will cause cities to receive less development-generated revenues than expected, and that might lead politicians to try and raise taxes.

"Do I think it was fair? Absolutely," Eastman said. "It was one of the things the SOAR people didn't want people to talk about."

SOAR leader Steve Bennett, a former Ventura councilman, ridiculed that claim, saying it was reminiscent of dirty tricks used to stop the original SOAR measure passed by Ventura voters in 1995.

"It showed how desperate they were," Bennett said. "We've consistently fought opposition that has been willing to sell out their principles out of desperation. We've run these campaigns over and over, and we can feel proud about what we've done."

Like Francis, Bennett said SOAR activists are hoping to keep their coalition together. But he dismissed talk of another Greenbelt Alliance as extremely premature, saying it was important for the group not to grow overconfident.

"This group of people feels passionately enough about stopping urban sprawl, and we're going to do something," Bennett said. "But it's far too early to say what that will be. We need to sit down as a group and talk about it."

Bennett and Francis also said they had no immediate plans to seek political office.

Bennett is widely rumored to be interested in the Board of Supervisors seat expected to be vacated in 2000 by Susan Lacey, and Francis has openly expressed interest in the 23rd Congressional District seat held by Republican Elton Gallegly, who won reelection Tuesday. Both men leave open the possibility they will again run for office, but insist they have made no decisions yet.

For farm leader Carolyn Leavens, the results on SOAR were a depressing realization that people were buying into "ballot-box zoning" en masse, despite the agriculture industry's concerns it would actually hurt farmers.

But Leavens said she was optimistic that the success of Measure A, an advisory measure supported by nearly 69% of county voters, will lead to further debate on farmland preservation--and she hopes the SOAR group is part of that process.

Measure A polled voters about the recommendations of a panel that studied ways to save the farm industry, as well as sought support for a county proposal to start a special government district to purchase farmland and open space.

"If they form a nonprofit, they better be stashing away money to educate the public [about land use issues], because they're going to have to make a lot of important decisions now," Leavens said. "We can't dig in our heels. We've got to work together now."

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