Trying to preserve the small-town character of a city nestled between the ocean and rolling hillsides, Ventura residents have embraced some of the toughest growth-control laws in California in recent years.
But faced with a slow economy and skyrocketing housing costs, a citizens committee is now eyeing a swath of grazing land outside the city limits for potential expansion.
Specifically, the 19-member panel is urging the city to expand its growth boundaries northward to include 814 acres along Canada Larga Road for possible construction of 1,300 homes and industrial and retail space.
The committee recently added Canada Larga to a list of potential expansion areas as it finalized recommendations to the city's Comprehensive Plan, a state-mandated blueprint for future development that Ventura is in the process of updating.
The committee's report, which culminates 2 1/2 years of discussion and research, states that the city is almost entirely built out, leaving little vacant land for development at a time when soaring housing costs threaten to deter businesses looking to expand or relocate.
As a result, the report recommends building higher-density housing and redeveloping some areas. It also identifies five sites for possible expansion over the next quarter century.
Canada Larga is the largest of those sites and the only one not subject to growth-control laws. The other four, all on farmland, are protected by the city's 1995 Save Our Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, initiative, which prohibits development on agricultural land without voter approval.
The Planning Commission is expected to consider the recommendations at this Tuesday's meeting. The City Council could take up the matter next year.
At this point, there are no specific development plans, and city leaders are being asked only to decide where Ventura should direct its future growth.
But for many residents, the mere suggestion of building homes on grazing land or lemon orchards could raise concerns. Others may balk at the idea of high-density apartments and condos in their neighborhoods.
"We know there are really tough challenges ahead for the city in terms of how it is going to grow," said Lisa Porras, one of three city planners working on the Comprehensive Plan update.
"Should we focus on expansion areas, or should we focus more on infill, or both?"
The issue comes at a critical time for Ventura. It is one of the region's oldest cities, built more than a century ago around the historic San Buenaventura Mission, and has a population of 100,916. It has grown more slowly than the county or state in recent years, and business activity is lagging in the face of rising city expenses.
A recent budget analysis found the city did not have enough money to pay for a backlog of maintenance projects for streets, landscaping and other work, and the state budget crisis could make matters worse.
At the same time, housing costs are pricing many in the workforce out of the market. In September, the median price of a home in east Ventura rose to $411,500, according to DataQuick Information Systems, which compiles the statistics from records of sales of new and existing houses and condos.
But the inventory of housing remains tight. According to the committee's report, Ventura's housing stock grew 7% between 1990 and 2000, compared with 14% growth in Thousand Oaks.
Bart Bleuel, an Oxnard attorney and a committee member, said a lack of affordable units and a scant supply of high-end executive housing threatened to drive off businesses and young professionals.
Bleuel, a past president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, said the group polled executives at 12 top companies in the county, and all cited housing as the prime factor in deciding where to locate their operations.
Even without bringing in new business or residents, Bleuel and other committee members said, growth projections suggest that the existing housing supply was not enough to meet future demand.
"We can close the gates on the outside of the city and bring up the drawbridge, eliminate all births and have all our kids move out, and maybe the problem goes away, but that is ridiculous," he said.
"I think most Venturans understand that you have to have some growth to be a healthy community," said Dan Long, a painting contractor who also served on the committee. "Where we do it is the rub."
According to the committee's report, at least 2,568 new dwelling units could be constructed on vacant and underutilized residential land.
Hundreds more could be squeezed onto those sites if the city opted for higher-density development.
An additional 4,992 units could be built if the city changed land-use designations in some areas.
But the greatest number of homes -- 6,861 -- could be built by developing the farmland and grazing pastures identified by the committee for future expansion, the report said.
Planners said the Canada Larga site could accommodate 1,300 homes on 283 acres while preserving 488 acres as parkland.
In a letter to the Planning Commission, Shull "Buz" Bonsall Jr., whose family owns the Canada Larga land identified for possible development, said the property "would provide an opportunity for comprehensive planning of a community with housing of all types."
Bonsall said in his letter that the property, which is not prime farmland, is accessible by existing roads and is close to water and sewer services.
He added last week that the site would be an economic catalyst to the west side and downtown, which is only four miles away, and would be a logical place for the city to expand.
Such expansion would require approval from the Local Agency Formation Commission, the state agency that oversees annexations.
Bleuel said Canada Larga was the ideal place for expansion, though he knows others disagree. The committee added Canada Larga to the list of expansion sites on a narrow 9-7 vote at its Aug. 27 meeting.
Those in the minority question whether the city should reach beyond its existing boundaries; they suggest that building on pastureland would be inconsistent with voters' desire to stop suburban sprawl.
"It is going out where there is nothing," said Karen Flock, a development director for a low-income home builder, who voted against adding Canada Larga to the list.
Councilman Carl Morehouse, a county planner and committee member also opposed to building in Canada Larga, said poor land-use decisions in the past allowed developers to build in a hopscotch pattern that isolated pockets of farmland on the east end. "Consequently, I think we now have to set our boundaries and fill in the middle," he said.
The four farmland sites identified for potential expansion by the committee are all bordered, or in some cases surrounded by, existing development.
They include a 55-acre lemon orchard near the Ventura River that could accommodate 270 homes, and 155 acres of lemons near the Santa Clara River that could hold 1,155 homes.
The committee also recommended expanding onto 261 acres of orchards and row crops north of the riverfront site. That area is close to the city's planned sports park and could accommodate 1,875 homes.
The fourth site, a 418-acre patchwork of crops, including lemons and avocados, extends south from Foothill Road to California 126 and would allow construction of 2,261 homes.
Whether the anti-sprawl citizenry will accept any development on farms or pastureland remains to be seen, but if history is any guide, it could be a tough sell.
In 1999, voters approved a proposal by a First Assembly of God Church to build a sanctuary, auditorium and ball fields on 25 acres of cropland in east Ventura.
But last fall, they struck down a plan to construct 1,390 homes on the hillsides above Ventura in exchange for preserving 3,050 acres for trails, parks and open space.
"We know it is challenging," said Porras, the city planner, "but perhaps, as the city continues to experience the high cost of living, we may have to start looking at these expansion areas."