Ventura County Plan to Preserve Land on Hold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson has temporarily withdrawn her proposal to create a Ventura County land-conservation program because of wrangling among county supervisors.

"I initially carried this with the unanimous agreement" of the Board of Supervisors, said Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). "Apparently now there's some concern. I don't want to get into the middle of a battle amongst them."

She said she would put the measure back in motion only if local officials unanimously support it in its current form--something Supervisors Judy Mikels and John Flynn said they will not do.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether county voters would agree to tax themselves to buy open space, which the measure would pave the way to do. Taxpayer advocates say it probably depends on how much the tax would be, and polls in recent years have shown local voters divided on the issue.

Supervisors have pledged to conduct a new round of polling, but it has yet to get underway.

Early this year, the board agreed unanimously to ask Jackson to sponsor legislation that would allow the creation of an open-space district that might eventually tax county residents to buy land.

But even then, the supervisors were not in agreement on the fine print. Mikels' support was the most tentative and has eroded as the months passed. This week, she said she actively opposes the measure. She cited a shortage of affordable housing and said she is not convinced more land should be left undeveloped. She also wants amendments to protect farmers, including a provision saying that funds would be used not just on parks, but to pay farmers to keep their operations going, rather than selling to developers.

"I'm not going to support the district for the sheer purpose of gathering more parkland," Mikels said.

Meanwhile, Flynn, who elicited Jackson's involvement in the first place, has been pressuring the lawmaker for an amendment allowing supervisors, rather than voters, to create the district.

Jackson said from the start that the only legislation she would be willing to sponsor was the model adopted by Santa Barbara County--one of 10 California counties with open-space conservation districts. If supervisors no longer want that legislation, Jackson said, she will simply drop her effort.

Supervisor Frank Schillo and Flynn are now scrambling to get Mikels and Jackson to compromise.

But Flynn acknowledged disagreement at the local level has given opponents in Sacramento ammunition to attack Jackson and the measure. He said that is what happened last month when the measure received a 7-4 vote in a legislative committee before Jackson put it on hold.

"She's afraid she'll be attacked on the Assembly floor," Flynn said. "She's got the ability to put this through as we want it, but she's being very stubborn about it."

Supervisor Steve Bennett, a slow-growth proponent, said supervisors, not Jackson, are to blame.

"I don't think this issue is dead, but it requires lots more communication and coordination by the board," he said. "I'd look forward to us revisiting it. I'd rather do it right than do it fast."

Under any scenario, Flynn and Schillo have said that county voters would get to decide if and how much to tax themselves and would also have input on what land to buy and what to use it for. But first, they say, state legislation is needed to create a mechanism for collecting private or public money.

Schillo and Flynn had planned to pressure Mikels to reaffirm her support for the original plan at a board meeting later this month. But Mikels said she won't succumb to that pressure. "My feeling is this ought to become a two-year bill and locally we ought to work out all these issues," she said.

Supervisor Kathy Long could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Tim Wolfe, a board member and past chairman of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., predicted that even if supervisors agree on a plan, voters will have questions.

"What's it going to cost me now? Ten years down the road?" he asked. "How will it affect housing prices?"

Until more details emerge, Wolfe said, his group is not comfortable taking a position on the plan.

In 1998, 68% of county voters supported Measure A, which asked whether public and private funds should be used to preserve land. But a 1997 poll by the University of California's Hansen Trust showed that 50% of county voters would oppose tax increases to pay for farmland protection.

Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said his group won't even consider backing the legislation until county voters are freshly polled on the subject.

Beyond public opinion, farmers would be unlikely to support a measure that didn't address their own concerns.

"At one time it was going to be an agricultural-conservation district," Laird said. "Then it morphed into a park-and-recreation district. We've been held out of the process, and I think we're justifiably skeptical about what's going on."

Farmers and slow-growth activists agree that it could be complicated to assess the potential value of development rights on farmland currently bound by the county's SOAR policy, which restricts development in agricultural areas for another two decades.

Attorney Richard Francis, a key force behind the SOAR movement, said an open-space district sounds like a nice idea but "logistically it seems very difficult."

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