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LAFCO Should Reinstate Land-Use Standards, Grand Jury Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The local agency charged as a watchdog against urban sprawl weakened its own power when it gutted its guidelines last year, the Ventura County Grand Jury said Thursday.

Its report recommended that the Local Agency Formation Commission reinstate the standards, which would in part request detailed land-use studies by cities and developers as a requirement of defining their future growth boundaries.

The report also suggests the commission was not fully informed when it voted 4 to 3 in February to approve Santa Paula’s request to expand its sphere of influence to include Adams and Fagan canyons northwest of the city, because it did not see the land-use studies.

The guideline deletions “suggest that a majority of the Ventura County LAFCO commissioners do not understand and appreciate their mandate under the [state] legislation establishing their agency,” the grand jury said in a report signed by foreman Marvin J. Reeber.

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Everett Millais, who became LAFCO’s executive officer after the Santa Paula decision, said his agency would review the agency’s criticisms and respond.

“I’m certainly respectful of the role of the grand jury,” Millais said. “But I’m disagreeing now, based on some factual things.”

The commission deleted the guidelines in part because it left the panel open to lawsuits by slow-growth advocates, Millais said.

Indeed, the report quotes a county counsel memo as referring to one portion of the guidelines as “another fertile area for those who object to a [sphere] amendment. . . . It should be deleted.”

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Despite the guidelines formerly in LAFCO’s handbook, cities have never been required to submit extensive details of how they would extend services to an expanded area when seeking to enlarge their so-called sphere of influence, Millais said.

“It’s not in the city’s sphere,” said Jay Scott, who recently left his post as the public member of the commission. “Land-use planning should be the next step of the process. Cities and special districts aren’t at a position to have those land-use decisions made” when they first face LAFCO.

At the time of the Santa Paula decision, the LAFCO panel included Scott, Santa Paula Councilwoman Robin Sullivan, Ventura Councilman Jim Monahan, county Supervisors Kathy Long and Judy Mikels, and special district representatives Jim Acosta and John Rush.

The grand jury, which studies various government issues, can make suggestions, but they do not have to be followed.

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Nonetheless, opponents of LAFCO’s decision hailed the grand jury’s report as a confirmation of arguments they had made for months.

“It’s gratifying to have them repeating what I was saying,” said Richard Francis, a co-author of the successful SOAR growth-control measure who had earlier sued LAFCO over a decision on a Moorpark housing development. “Just because the public has standards to object to a sphere amendment is not a reason for getting rid of the standards.”

He said that LAFCO’s decision to toss out some of its own rules undermined good planning and development practices, diluted the commission’s power and may weaken the county’s ability to be one of the toughest places in the state for cities to expand their boundaries.

“LAFCO is an important safety net in the land-use planning area, and we’d like to see [it] be effective and have some teeth,” he said. “It doesn’t obviate the need for the critical analysis that they just washed away.”

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