October 4, 2016

Ventura County Ag Industry Flexes a Little Muscle

On the November ballot in Ventura County, the citizenry will be able to vote on two different land use propositions because of efforts of the ag community in that county.

The issue dates back to 1998 when Ventura County voters overwhelmingly backed the SOAR Initiative.  SOAR stands for Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, which is exactly how it was billed back then.  Rob Roy, longtime president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association, said in 1998 the initiative had lukewarm support from agriculture and no major opposition.  It put provisions in the zoning regulations that purported to save agricultural land from development.   It required major zoning changes in open space, which includes agricultural land, to go through a voter approval process.  According to press accounts, over the past 20 years that system has been used about 10 times, with the petitioner seeking the zoning change wining six of those 10 times.

SOAR is set to expire in 2018, but backers of the plan chose to request a continuation vote two years earlier to coincide with the presidential election, which tends to produce a much larger turnout than an off year election.  Roy said SOAR worked well enough that the agricultural community was willing to work with the SOAR proponents on a few changes that the industry felt was necessary considering how the cost of farming has escalated.  Specifically, the industry wanted more opportunities to build structures such as processing plants and water infrastructure on their land.  They argued that while SOAR purported to be against residential development of farming land, it ultimately added more layers of bureaucracy for any building on that land.  Agriculture also wanted the SOAR program to only cover the next 20 years.

Roy said the SOAR backers abandoned negotiations with the ag community and soon had an initiative prepared that extended SOAR to 2050 and did not take into account some of the provisions ag wanted.  “They have created a slow growth land use initiative that has nothing to do with preserving ag land,” he said.

The ag industry, Roy said, was not happy and decided to rise up and do something about it.  VCAA joined together with some other groups and successfully raised enough money to qualify their own land use initiative for the ballot.  Proposition F, Sustain VC, will appear on the ballot, as will Proposition C, the SOAR initiative.  If both pass, the one with the most votes will become law.

In a nutshell, Proposition C extends the SOAR Initiative to 2050.  Proposition F extends the voter approval for zoning changes to 2036, carves out several exemptions for agricultural uses of the land and prioritizes the long-term viability of agriculture.

The importance of the fight from a 40,000 foot level may well be agriculture’s ability to launch the fight in the first place and fund it properly.  Roy said sufficient money was raised from the ag community to put its initiative on the ballot and funding solicitation had raised more than a half a million dollars by the middle of September.  He said that was sufficient to wage a credible battle.