Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Back to the Bad Old Days?

Last night, after more than 3 hours of debate, the City Council voted 4-3 to add the floor of the Canada Larga Valley into the North Avenue Community Plan Area. I voted against this proposal, mostly because I think it will make it far more difficult to accomplish the many important community goals on the Westside and in the North Avenue that we all agree on. Frankly, I am afraid that this vote portends the return of the “bad old days” on land use and development in Ventura.

A little background: Back in April, the City Council green-lighted new community plans for the North Avenue and the Westside, as well as initial work to create a combined redevelopment project area for the entire North Avenue/Westside area. At that time, the city attorney concluded that Councilmember Monahan had a conflict because of his property holdings on Ventura Avenue and could not vote. When it came time to decide whether to put the Canada Larga floor into the plan area, the vote was 3-3 with Mr. Monahan sitting out it. Under our rules, the proposal failed, but it was obvious at that time that there were 4 votes on the council to include Canada Larga in the plan.

More recently the Fair Political Practices Commission and our city attorney determined that Mr. Monahan did not have a conflict and could vote on the matter. Not wanting to hold things up, I scheduled the item for last night.

We heard 40 speakers, but the truth of the matter is that we didn’t really have to. When we took the vote at 11 p.m. it was 4-3. Nobody had changed their mind based on listening to the speakers. To her credit, Councilmember Christy Weir said that, while she is conceptually in favor of executive housing in Canada Larga, she will be open-minded about whether the cost of infrastructure and police and fire service would be too high for the city. While Deputy Mayor Mike Tracy did not make quite the same comment, I think he’s somewhat open-minded too.

I was opposed to including Canada Larga before and I am even more opposed now – not only because I think homes up there are a bad idea, but because I believe the Canada Larga issue will be divisive and a huge distraction over the next couple of years as we move forward with the North Avenue/Westside efforts. Here are a few things that will now happen as a result of last night’s vote:

-- The environmental impact report for the North Avenue plan, which the City is paying for, will become far more time-consuming, complicated, and expensive than before. This will, at the very least, show things down.

-- The inevitable lawsuits from environmental groups will become much harder to defend. I think some environmental groups might sue anyway – they don’t like the tentative inclusion of agricultural land and some other parcels owned by the Bonsall family along the Ventura Avenue – but those lawsuits would be much simpler and easier to resolve if we did not include Canada Larga in the discussion.

-- It will become much harder to get Ventura County to sign off of the whole thing, especially the redevelopment project area. The redevelopment component is important because redevelopment funds from the Brooks/Petrochem project could be used for improvements down on the Avenue. But the County may oppose redevelopment and could even sue us. With Canada Large in, it’s much more likely that the County will hold up the redevelopment effort.

-- I don’t think we’re going to get this annexation past the Local Agency Formation Commission – the county agency that approves boundary changes. If LAFCO doesn’t approve this, then we’ll have to sue them to get it, and I can’t see us winning that lawsuit.

-- I’m pretty sure that our local environmentalists will run a ballot measure to make development of Canada Larga subject to a vote.

There you go: All kinds of costs, delays, lawsuits, and maybe ballot measures that will make it much more difficult – maybe impossible – for us to move forward with all the things we unanimously agree on in revitalizing the Westside and the North Avenue. All those those good things we all agree on are being held hostage in order to try to force through a Canada Larga development that we are deeply divided on and have never in the past allowed to move forward. Not a good idea.

Beyond that, I fear that that the whole Canada Larga thing will take us back to the “bad old days” of the growth wars in Ventura – where developers engage in game-playing to try to get four votes, people on either side of an issue call each other names, and everything comes to a halt because it’s so contentious.

Ventura was riven by this stuff for 30 years. Recently, all of us on the city council have worked hard to put those days behind us. We passed our infill-first General Plan in 2005, we eliminated the dysfunctional Residential Growth Management Program, and we cleaned up the development review process.

This is real progress, and I thank all six of my colleagues for working collaboratively to make that progress happen. Do we really want to go back to the bad old days?

I certainly don’t, but last night I already felt that we were back in the bad old days. Three examples:

-- Landowner Buzz Bonsall and one of his allies withheld their speaker cards for two hours and put them in at the last minute, at 10 o’clock, after all the other 40 speakers had spoken. Buzz discussed his proposed project a little – but only after everybody else had spoken when they had no opportunity to respond. Buzz had the right to do this, but, I’m sorry, that just seems like pointless game-playing to me. If this is any indication of how the relationship between the city and the property owner is going to go here, I’m not optimistic.

-- Councilmembers Monahan and Morehouse got into a heated debate on the dais about why Cal State had not been built here in Ventura on Taylor Ranch -- something that happened, I think, when Ronald Reagan was president. Can we finally get over that one?

-- Councilmember Monahan and former Mayor Richard Francis, who spoke as a member of the public, got into a heated back-and-forth as well, with Mr. Monahan accusing Mr. Francis (semi-jokingly, I think) of having a hand in the earlier decision to rule that he was conflicted out of the vote. (Mr. Francis brought the house down by responding that if it was up to him, Mr. Monahan would never get to vote.)

The back-and-forth between Monahan and Francis was wonderful political theater 20 years ago, when they served consecutively as mayor, the town was deeply divided over growth, and I used watch the council meetings sitting on my sofa. But we’ve made great progress in the last few years – generally speaking, we’ve left those days behind and moved forward together as a community.

I, for one, don’t want to see the bad old days come back again. It may be good political theater, but it’s only going to tear our town apart.