California is at a crossroads as to how to respond to the lack of affordable housing. The dire threat of climate change and the related risks of increased rates and intensity of wildfire, drought and sea level rise all point to an urgent need to change the way we meet our housing need. We no longer have the luxury of building sprawl developments in the wildland-urban interface; to do so is to place people, property and, ultimately, taxpayer dollars at risk.
Local jurisdictions hold the power to ensure we add to our housing stock in the most logical places. Unfortunately, many elected officials find it difficult to just say no to intensive development on open space and agricultural land. Just last May, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the massive Tejon Ranch development despite its fire-prone location and lack of water in our region.
Similarly, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has a long track record of approving large back country housing developments that directly contradict the principles that underpin that county’s award-winning General Plan. One of those projects is so controversial that the voters placed a referendum on the March ballot to challenge the Board’s approval.
Ventura County, on the other hand, has focused growth in cities, leaving wildlands and farmlands undeveloped which makes the most sense given our known challenges with water shortages and wildfire. Yet here in Ventura County we face the same development pressures as they do in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. So why isn’t Ventura County following in the same footsteps as our neighboring counties? While I’d like to say that our Board of Supervisors is more enlightened about the best way to grow our region, the reality is that local voters set us on this path and continue to play a key role in keeping us on it.
Back in 1998, grassroots activists put a citizen’s initiative on the ballot known as SOAR, or Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources. SOAR is an anti-sprawl measure that requires a majority of voters to rezone open space, agricultural or rural land in the unincorporated county. SOAR also keeps cities from sprawling out into the county with voter approved urban boundary limits around eight of our cities. In 2016, Ventura County voters overwhelmingly re-upped all of these measures to protect agricultural land and open space through 2050.
In a few weeks, San Diego County voters will consider a measure that is very similar to SOAR. Measure A, dubbed the “Save Our San Diego Countryside” by citizen activists there who placed it on the ballot. It would require a vote of the people before large housing developments could be built in the county’s fire-prone rural and semi-rural areas. Like SOAR, it does NOT affect growth that is consistent with existing zoning.
Looking at Ventura County’s experience, voters would do well to help enforce San Diego County’s General Plan by passing Measure A. Like SOAR, Measure A will discourage sprawl development and focus development in cities and revitalizing downtowns where people can be closer to transit, schools and services.
SOAR has provided tremendous benefits to Ventura County. We enjoy a low unemployment rate, which as of last October was 3.4 percent compared to the statewide average of 3.9 percent. Since SOAR’s passage, Ventura County has also maintained a higher home affordability index than other SoCal coastal counties, and a lower poverty, homelessness and crime rate. Our homeownership rate is among the highest in the state at 63.2 percent, which is significantly higher than the statewide average of 54.5 percent.
Despite SOAR’s limitations on development on farmland and open space, Ventura County’s housing development rates are about average compared to those of other coastal counties. But when housing construction rates dropped in most Southern California counties last year, Ventura County instead saw an increase in home building. We’ve also done a better job in building homes that are suitably priced for moderate income, low income, and very low income households. Ventura County produced homes for these lower income brackets at more than twice the rate of San Diego County, which struggles to curb climate change emissions by promoting transit-friendly housing.
California can no longer follow the status quo when it comes to encouraging housing development in a way that promotes affordability without further stressing natural resources. Since local elected officials don’t consistently hold the line, voters should jump at the chance by supporting grassroots initiatives that provide voters a voice in land use. It’s worked in Ventura County. It can work in San Diego County, too.
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks previously served as a planning commissioner, cCouncilmember and mayor for the City of Thousand Oaks, where she led an initiative drive that protects parks and open space by vote of the people. She received her masters degree in urban planning from the University of Washington, and is an organizing director of SOAR.