Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Evolving Saticoy & Wells Community Plan

Last Tuesday night -- February 6th -- the City Council and the Planning Commission held a special meeting on the first complete public draft of the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan. (This draft can be found at
The meeting lasted five hours -- from 7 pm to Midnight. It was the latest in a series of special meetings in January and February on planning issues. It was the longest of these meetings so far and in some ways the rockiest. But we are making progress.

In the end, we ratified the general direction of the plan, but we also asked the staff to return within 60 days so we can clarify our position on a few specific issues, including parks in Saticoy & Wells and what scale of retail we should permit around the Wells-Highway 126 interchange. The Council also backed off of the staff's recommendation to specifically call for placement of a new youth center and library in Old Town Saticoy, as well as specific placement of possible middle and elementary schools in specific locations.

Next Monday night, we will inevitably revisit some of these issues when we hear the neighborhood's appeal of the Hertel-Cabrillo housing project, which is located east of Wells Road just north of Highway 126. (For more details, see

At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Rick Cole, our City Manager, called the whole Saticoy & Wells Community Plan an "awkward straddle". By this he meant the challenge of trying to create a Community Plan for the buildout of Saticoy & Wells at the same time that we are allowing four large development projects to move forward as Specific Plans in the area.

Saticoy & Wells is the focus of a major planning effort for one very simple reason: Most of the remaining undeveloped non-SOAR land in the city is located there. There are about five or six major undeveloped parcels, including the proposed Parklands project and the UC Hansen Trust property, which are located west of Wells between Highway 126 and Telegraph, and three significant parcels in a partially built-out area south of Highway 126 and east of Wells.

One of our neighborhood speakers Tuesday night asked when we decided to "pave over" the Saticoy & Wells area. The answer is that this area was slated for development in the 1989 Comprehensive Plan, and this was ratified in 1995 when the voters approved the SOAR initiative, which specifically permitted development on these parcels (some of which are still in agriculture at this time but not covered by SOAR). The 2005 General Plan calls for the construction of as many as 2,000 houses (out of 8,300 citywide) in this area; pending development proposals would add about 1,000.

A Community Plan is a component of the General Plan that lays out policies for a specific area (in fact, the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan will officially be Chapter 11 of the city's General Plan). A Specific Plan is a more detailed document that includes policies, a development code, and usually specific infrastructure requirements for a specific area as well. A better model -- used in many parts of California -- would have been require all of the landowners out there to participate in a Specific Plan process for Saticoy & Wells, which would have allocated development among the different properties and also specifically identified, sited, and allocated the cost of infrastructure and community facilities.

But developers in Ventura are not accustomed to working together even when their properties are adjacent to one another. This is part of the legacy of the old Residential Growth Management Program, which pitted developers in competition with one another rather than encouraging them to work together. At the time of the last RGMP round in 2005, some of these properties had housing allocations and some did not. When we exempted Specific Plans from the RGMP in late 2005 (before replacing the RGMP with a new system in 2006), all of the Saticoy & Wells developers, quite predictably, submitted their proposals in the form of Specific Plans.

The result of this imperfect process is that we have a bunch of individual Specific Plans rather than one big Specific Plan for the whole area. Instead we have a Community Plan that seeks to set policies that will knit the area together; and we have stuck to our promise to try to devise the Community Plan and process the Specific Plans at the same time, on the assumption that we can measure the Specific Plans against the probable policies in the Community Plan.

Are you confused yet? Me too.

The bulk of the Community Plan puts forth policies that the Specific Plans can be measured against. These policies cover all topics, from land use to transportation to infrastructure. My biggest concern is that these policies are not specific enough. I believe the Community Plan should -- as much as possible -- identify the infrastructure and community facilities we need in Saticoy & Wells, so we can do what a communitywide Specific Plan would have done -- allocate the location and costs of those facilities among the different property owners. At present, we have different developers offering up different things -- open space here, a library there, additional money for whatever community facilities we want -- but we can't see what it all adds up to or what each developer's "fair share" ought to be. There's a difference between having policies that the city can use to determine whether a development project is consistent with (which is what we have now) and having a plan that lays out precisely what should happen so that we can make sure the development projects implement that plan, which is what we should have.

Hence the awkward straddle.

During the five-hour meeting, we debated lots of things. In a moment I'll go back to the one that I think is most illustrative of the pending issues -- parks -- but first let me run through a few other things.

* We debate the planning staff's general recommendation that we make Wells (as well as Telegraph) more pedestrian-oriented. There is a lot of skepticism about whether this is really possible, especially given the truck traffic on Wells, but I think we can probably find some kind of hybrid. (I didn't mention this the other night, but for those portions of Wells that are controlled by Caltrans, we could try to get Caltrans to do what is called a "context-sensitive design" effort, which essentially tries to fit a state highway into a community context.)

* We came down pretty strongly in favor of the idea of creating Los Angeles Avenue all the way to Darling as a truly pedestrian-oriented Main Street alternative to Wells for local traffic. This had a lot of support on the council and is consistent with our idea on Victoria -- that we should create a similar street west of Victoria as the area redevelops.

* We debated a lot about the relationship to Old Town Saticoy. Old Town is the historic core of Saticoy and it is connected to the parcels that we will be processing but it is currently in the county. We as a city seem to be taking a greater sense of responsibility here, which is good; though we have yet to agree on exactly how that sense of responsibility will play out. The staff suggested that both a new library and a youth center be located in Old Town Saticoy, though a majority of the council (with me dissenting, at least on the library) backed off of that as an iron-clad idea. There's also language in the draft plan to work with the county and property owners to pursue annexation, which I favor. But there is some bumpiness to the interim steps. One Old Town property owner asked us to change our policy on water hookups to Old Town so he could develop an infill project under county jurisdictions. We currently require annexation in these situations, though we provided water to the new county yard in Saticoy without demanding annexation. We did not move in toward loosening our water-annexation direction, partly because our view is that if we are going to provide water to infill development, we also want to be able to control the development standards. We are definitely moving toward forcing the annexation issue.

* We generally supported (or at least did not squawk about) the idea of two pedestrian overpasses over 126, one on either side of Wells -- including that would essentially extend Los Avenue. The East Ventura Community Council's comments criticized this idea, calling the ped bridges an unwanted intrusion into neighborhoods, but I was pleased to see that two neighborhood residents spoke in favor of the ped bridges on Tuesday night. One resident said he lives south of the freeway and has to drive his kids to his mother's mobile home north of the freeway.

* We debated but did not resolve the question of the scale of retail on the parcels south of the freeway and east of Wells. In the past, big box ideas such as Wal-Mart and Target have been thrown around for these sites, not least because it is accessible to shoppers from Santa Paula. But we seemed to favor limiting the retail to community-level retail -- i.e., perhaps a supermarket shopping center. The closest supermarkets now are Albertsons
(a new store) at Kimball and Telegraph and Ralphs (an old, small store) at Telephone and Petit.

Now back to parks -- because this is the issue that best exemplifies the awkward straddle.

We have long-established parks standards -- so many acres of parkland per thousand residents, with requirements for smaller neighborhood parks and larger community parks. It's not hard to calculate these standards out for the whole Saticoy & Wells area, but this calculation is not contained or illustrated in the Community Plan. There is a proposed, general open space map in the Community Plan -- basically, depicting what all the different developers have proposed in the way of open space and parks -- and it has a big caveat that it's only illustrative and that the final parks and open space system may be different. This is the difference between a Community Plan and a Specific Plan.

(One big issue is that the Community Plan currently calls for the eventual conversion of the Saticoy Regional Golf Course adjacent to Huntsinger Park -- located in the city but owned by the county -- into some other kind of community-oriented park space. I personally think this is highly unlikely and would hate to assume it for the purposes of calculating park space.)

The actual calculations of the park space and measurement against the standard will take place as part of the Community Plan Environmental Impact Report -- not likely to come to us till the fall. But the Parklands project -- which will almost certainly be the first Specific Plan to come before us, sometime this spring -- calls for a series of small park spaces throughout the project, consistent with New Urbanist philosophy. (You can see the plan for Parklands on the Moule & Polyzoides web site at Just click on Parklands and then on Plan.) Some folks say that these spaces shouldn't count toward meeting the parks standard.

You can see where this is going. What if we approve the Parklands project with its current parks configuration, as we will be under tremendous pressure to do this spring; only to learn later on, in the EIR, that the overall parks standard will not be met by the assumed development in the Community Plan (including Parklands)? This would mean that we will have to load the parks burden onto the other developments, mostly probably the adjacent Hansen Trust property, because Parklands is already out of the gate. Or else back off of our standards at least insofar as Saticoy & Wells is concerned and wrap our policies not around what we need, but around what these developers are offering us.

Principal Planner Dave Ward said the staff's initial assessment is that these spaces should count, and that based on this Parklands will likely meet the standard. This is fair enough, but it depends on a particular interpretation of the parks standard that the Planning Commission and the City Council may or may not agree with.

You could apply this same reasoning to any other public facilities -- libraries, community centers, roads, even the ped bridges. What I suggested -- and the council agreed with this -- was to address this question head-on. We directed the staff to come back to us within two months with a policy discussion on the question of how to count and distribute parks in the Saticoy & Wells area. Better to address this one at the Community Plan level than back ourselves into a corner in the individual project reviews.

There is no perfect way out of the awkward straddle, but this is a step forward. I only wish we could do this with all the infrastructure and public facility issues, but that's not likely given our previous direction to move forward on the Specific Plans (which we reaffirmed Tuesday night). The staff will come back with the parks issues, the retail question, and one or two other issues no later than April -- ahead of the Parklands Specific Plan, which should come to the Planning Commission in May.

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