Of War and Peace and a Tale of Four Cities . . .

Beverly Kelley hosts "Local Talk" on KCLU-FM (88.3) and is returning to the communication arts department at Cal Lutheran University after a year's sabbatical. Address e-mail to kelley@clunet.edu

In 1989, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas brush-stroked a noir portrait of a bankrupt yuppie marriage, "The War of the Roses."

The endless battling between Barbara and Oliver Rose climaxed in the casualty-claiming crash of a Baccarat crystal chandelier. Forced to reside together after their marriage vows had become meaningless, the reluctant joint tenants escalated tensions from heated hostility to take-no-prisoners.

Although most consider the term "friendly divorce" oxymoronic, the Rose dissolution was remarkable for its extremely stubborn skirmishers. Both until-death-do-us-partners were prepared to remain aboard an accelerating express from hell until the inevitable end of the line.

The cities of Oxnard and Ventura have been sparring over shopping centers since the mid-1980s. Each uncompromising community points a demonizing finger at the other, issuing "see you in court" threats with abandon. It all started when Oxnard thumbed its nose at Ventura's request to look at the impact of increased Town Center traffic on Highway 101. Ventura sued.

The squabble really heated up in 1995 when Sears and Robinsons-May, lured by Ventura's lucrative tax incentives, decided to relocate. The next year, Oxnard sued twice to prevent the expansion of the Buenaventura Mall. Late last month, Oxnard city officials bid adieu to any hope of winning on appeal.

Two months ago, it was Ventura's turn to sue. They contested the approval of a 2,264-acre redevelopment plan, otherwise known as the Historic Enhancement and Revitalization of Oxnard, on the basis of assorted environmental challenges. Whether the 293 acres of farmland destined for Oxnard's Town Center can be legally defined as "blighted" isn't the real issue.

The two cities are locked in cutthroat competition for sales tax dollars. In fact, ears burned this summer during the vigorous debate on a state bill banning mall wars. The proposed law, authored by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), breezed through the Assembly only to perish one vote shy in the Senate. Ventura County was cited as the textbook illustration of the self-destructive lengths to which municipalities will go to entice big-name retailers.

Although they've weathered their share of spats over the decades, the agricultural communities of Santa Paula and Fillmore are currently attempting an alternative approach to intractable head-knocking. They are joining forces in an effort to tempt tourists to tour their beguiling Santa Clara River Valley. Soon $4,700 worth of signs depicting a steam engine zigzagging through citrus groves, official logo of the "Heritage Valley," will be posted along Highway 126. An initial foray into histo-tourism by Fillmore and Santa Paula is slated for Sept. 12 and 13 with a joint celebration of this uncommon corner of Ventura County.

Visitors are being wooed by olde-time events unique to each locality. The Fillmore & Western Railway will perform as the engaging go-between. The sightseer to Santa Paula, home of the Union Oil Museum, will discover a community oozing with small town charm. One will be able gander at working muralists, antique planes and handmade quilts depicting nothing, of course, but politically correct motifs.

Fillmore, already sacred soil to vintage-rail buffs, will host demonstrations by weavers with the local winery providing oenophiles with an exceedingly palatable glass or two.

The Roses may have blissfully begun their relationship by bidding on the same figurine at a Nantucket estate auction, but they ended their journey through life on the train to tragedy. One wonders what would have happened if, instead of Oliver forcing Barbara out of the bidding and, incidentally, setting a precedent for the rest of their marriage, the two had decided to pool their resources.

The rail line between Fillmore and Santa Paula provided the means for two of Ventura County's most financially challenged communities to accomplish together what might never have been possible independently. It's too bad Ventura and Oxnard no longer need each other.

Engaging in mall wars is like trying to cling to a swinging light fixture: The resulting trip is not only one-way, it's straight down.

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