In a reversal of recent trends, ballot initiatives to restrict growth appear to be on the upswing - especially in Southern California, where few ballot measures have appeared in recent years. The hotbeds of controversy appear to be in Ventura and San Diego counties, which have historically had more "ballot-box zoning" than other parts of Southern California. In Ventura County, slow-growthers have mounted a coordinated November effort to pass urban growth boundaries in six cities as well as a voter approval requirement to convert agricultural and open space land to urban use in unincorporated areas. In San Diego County, slow-growthers have placed an initiative on the November ballot to downzone some 600,000 acres of rural land in the eastern part of the county. Both ballot efforts have caused considerable consternation among elected officials. In San Diego County, where the initiative has won the support of many city-level officials, the county supervisors representing the area went so far as to propose a state law prohibiting city residents from voting on initiatives that would affect unincorporated areas. In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors placed an alternative advisory measure on the ballot that calls for studying urban growth boundaries and a new tax to pay for purchase of farmland development rights. Although San Diego and Ventura are the biggest hotspots, several other land-use ballot measures are pending throughout the state. They include: o An initiative to regulate the removal of oak trees in Santa Barbara County - a measure motivated by the clearing of some 1,800 oak trees in the last two years to make way for wine grapes. o A possible urban growth boundary vote in Petaluma, which adopted the state's first growth-control ordinance some 26 years ago. o At least two municipal initiatives in San Diego County. One would place limits on a development project in Santee; the other would require voter approval for any increase in general plan densities in the city of Escondido. All this activity is taking place following a light ballot in June, when only eight land-use-related measures appeared on local ballots - including only one in Southern California. The Ventura and San Diego ballot measures appear to be generating the most political controversy. Both Ventura's Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources and San Diego's Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative are outgrowths of previous, smaller slow-growth efforts. The Ventura County initiative grew out of a similar measure that passed in the City of Ventura in 1995 and has apparently created a unified network of slow-growth activists throughout the county. The San Diego County effort emerged from a similar measure in 1993 that downzoned private in-holdings in Cleveland National Forest. Ventura County The Ventura County ballot effort, commonly known by the acronym SOAR, is actually a series of coordinated ballot measures designed to create urban growth boundaries around most of the county's cities and protect agricultural and open-space land in unincorporated territory. A measure will appear on the countywide ballot that would require voter approval for any conversion of land from agricultural or open space use to agricultural use. The measure is virtually identical to the Napa County initiative upheld by the California Supreme Court in DeVita v. County of Napa, 9 Cal.4th 763 (1995). SOAR activists gathered 70,000 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot. However, the SOAR activists sought to combine the DeVita-style measure on the county ballot with ballot measures in seven cities to create urban growth boundaries - making SOAR perhaps the most comprehensive and coordinated county-wide land-use initiative effort ever undertaken in California. According to former Ventura mayor Richard Francis, head of the SOAR effort, the intent in adding the municipal urban growth boundaries was to prevent the possibility of having open space and agricultural land simply annexed to cities in order to facilitate their development. (Ventura County has a long-standing policy of channeling almost all urban development into cities.) The SOAR forces ran into trouble, however, by making a mistake in drafting the signature petitions. By including the phrase "Address As Registered" as the top of the petitions, rather than asking signers for their current address, SOAR violated a long-standing legal requirement that signature petitions not invite fraud on the part of signers. Because of this blunder - brought to light in a lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party - a judge removed the SOAR initiatives from the county ballot and from all seven city ballots. In response, the SOAR activists went to the county Board of Supervisors and all seven city councils and negotiated for those elected bodies to place the initiatives on the ballot instead. SOAR succeeded at the county and in six of the seven cities - though two of the city councils included a "poison pill" stating that the countywide measure must pass for their local measures to take effect. In July, the state Department of Housing and Community Development warned one of the cities - Thousand Oaks - that the urban growth boundary initiative could "unduly constraint housing development" in violation of the state housing element law. The only city where the council refused to place the measures on the ballot was Moorpark, a fast-growing city just west of Simi Valley, where the council has just approved a 3,000-home development project proposed by Messenger Investment of Orange County. SOAR subsequently re-gathered the necessary signatures in Moorpark and a special election will likely be called next year as a result. In late August, SOAR also began a separate referendum drive to place the Messenger project on the ballot. Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors has placed an alternative, advisory measure on the ballot - even while voting to place SOAR on the ballot as well. When SOAR began gathering signatures, the county convened a stakeholder group in hopes of reaching consensus on a farmland preservation strategy. In May, this stakeholder group proposed a countywide moratorium on urban expansion while the cities and the Local Agency Formation Commission devised a plan for permanent urban growth boundaries and greenbelts. However, even before the stakeholder group brought its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, two supervisors held a press conference in which they announced their support of SOAR. After placing SOAR on the ballot, they also placed some of the stakeholder recommendations on the ballot as an advisory alternative - while adding some language about property rights and proposing study of an open-space district that might raise funds to buy land and development rights from farmers. SOAR's supporters say the advisory measure is compatible with their initiative and have not opposed it. Contacts: Richard Francis, SOAR, (805) 485-8888. Rex Laird, Ventura County Farm Bureau, (805) 656-3552. San Diego County Meanwhile, the proposed "Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative" in San Diego County has created no less political turmoil. The initiative is the latest round in a longstanding battle over large-lot zoning in the mostly rural eastern third of San Diego County. Much of this area is divided into ranchette lots. In the past, slow-growth activists have failed in their attempts to persuade the county Board of Supervisors to downzone the area to 40- and 80-acre lots - though the county did downzone many lots from one and two acres to four and eight acres. The RHWI, as its supporters call it, seeks voter approval of downzoning some 600,000 acres of land to 40- and 80-acre lots. According to Duncan McFetridge, a Descanso artisan who chairs RHWI, the measure would not affect the "country towns," or unincorporated villages designated in the county's planning policies. It is supported by some municipal officials and several leading biologists. However, the initiative has created a major political controversy at the county Board of Supervisors. In February, Supervisors Diane Jacob and Greg Cox proposed a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit residents of incorporated cities from voting on issues that affect only unincorporated areas. However, this proposal met stiff opposition. Then, in April and May, another controversy erupted over the county staff's analysis of the impact of the proposed initiative. While acknowledging that the initiative would have some beneficial effects, such as improved air quality, the county staff suggested that the measure would not help agriculture, while leading to leapfrog development and increasing housing costs. Most significantly, the staff report concluded that the initiative would not eliminate population growth but merely move it around by shifting 54,000 housing units from the unincorporated areas into other parts of the county. Contacts: Duncan McFetridge, (619) 462-7032.