Leadership of Land-Protection District in Question

Times Staff Writer

As plans for a countywide land-conservation district take shape, members of an advisory panel are struggling with one final aspect: Who should run it?

Should it be the Ventura County supervisors or their appointees? Or perhaps a slate of independent trustees elected by the public?

At issue is who controls the purse strings of a district that, if approved by voters, will administer about $14 million in annual funding to buy and permanently preserve Ventura County's undeveloped lands.

The 41-member Open Space District Advisory Committee, made up of environmental, business, farming, conservation and other interests, has been meeting for nearly a year to draft an operating plan for the proposed district. Supervisors created the committee to make recommendations on how to run the district before placing a measure before voters in March 2004.

Committee members have agreed that voters should be asked to approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to pay for land purchases. They have also agreed that the millions raised by that new tax should be spent about equally in three geographic areas: a north area composed of Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore, Ojai and all the unincorporated forest lands north of those cities; an east area composed of Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Moorpark; and a west area composed of Oxnard, Camarillo and Port Hueneme.

The committee members have also hammered out detailed criteria for identifying worthy properties. But the question of who should run the district has proven so vexing that the advisory panel put it off until all other details had been worked out.

Members will take up the issue again today at a 1 p.m. meeting at the county's Hall of Administration in Ventura.

It's possible the group will be unable to agree, said Joe Gibson, co-chairman of the committee. If so, the panel will turn over the decision to the Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on what form the district takes.

"If there's a strong consensus, we will make a recommendation," Gibson said. "If not, we will give them an analysis of the options and let them decide."

At issue is whether the public will accept the Board of Supervisors as the district's governing authority.

In a November 2001 survey, 60% of Ventura County respondents favored an appointed board of directors, 54% favored a directly elected board and 40% favored the Board of Supervisors.

But no other open-space district in California has an appointed board, and an independent board would probably be too costly, Gibson said.

Meanwhile, there is precedent for the Board of Supervisors to be the governing body. That is how Los Angeles County's open-space district operates, Gibson said.

No matter which option is chosen, the public should accept the district because of safeguards recommended by the committee, Gibson said.

For instance, the panel is recommending that a citizens committee be created to advise the Board of Supervisors on land purchases, should supervisors take on the governing function.

"When the voters see how the district is going to operate, that will have more of an impact than the governance," Gibson said. "Voters will want to know what is going to happen in their neighborhood."

The committee has made significant progress in defining what types of lands the county should buy.

Property will be pursued if there is a willing seller, if there is a high probability that the land will be developed and if there is a government or nonprofit group willing to maintain it after purchase.

Other factors include whether the land is part of a greenbelt buffer between cities, has scenic value or includes creeks, rivers or marshes.

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