In wake of poor economy, open space preservation gets renewed call for help

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Source of this article - Thousand Oaks Acorn, February 5, 2009.

By Sophia Fischer

The first in a series of meetings to educate the public about the expiration of deed restrictions that currently protect 400,000 acres of open space in Ventura County was held Jan. 31 in Oak Park.

About 60 people attended the SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) meeting at the Oak Park Community Center.


Conejo Valley open space—a valuable commodity

The county's open space and agricultural acreage is protected by SOAR laws, which are nine initiatives approved by Ventura County voters between 1995 and 2001. Under the laws, voters must give their approval before any of the SOAR land can be sold to a developer. But those deeds begin expiring in 12 years, putting the land at risk.

Although the expirations may seem like a long time away, environmental leaders want to build support now for the continuation of SOAR.

"Politics goes to those people that plan," Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett said. "If you want this county to win the second SOAR battle, I'm absolutely convinced that will have to be organized and strong."

Open space and farmland contribute to breathing room for residents and food for the nation, said SOAR Executive Director Karen Schmidt.

"We are becoming increasingly aware that open space is not a luxury. It may be crucial to our survival," Schmidt said.

Using a slide show and written report, Schmidt discussed the lands which are at risk. The areas most threatened are Mountain Ridge; Adams, Fagans and Alamos canyons; Temescal, Tierra Rejada and Jones ranches; and the farmland around California State University Channel Islands.

Hot spots in the county's eastern area include Mountclef Ridge, West Bay and the Borchard wetlands.

"Significant developer interest has been mounted to develop these areas," Schmidt said.

The open space is also being threatened by the state's budget deficit. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has been asked by the state legislative analyst's office to come up with lands that can be sold, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said. The SOAR laws don't apply to stateowned land, Parks said..

"State laws are trying to decrease our ability to control laws at the local level," she said.

The SOAR organization began in Ventura in 1989, but members didn't get their first open space measure on the city's ballot until 1995. A countywide SOAR vote followed in 1998.

"Why is it that a bunch of citizens have to organize at the grass-roots level and work their tails off to do something that all citizens want to have?" Bennett said.

He pointed to the development of the San Fernando Valley as an example of what can happen if residents don't let their elected officials know how they feel.

"The Valley was a gorgeous city surrounded by orchards, and 90 percent of people wanted it to stay like that," Bennett said.

Because the protests over Valley development came from only a few residents, the elected officials stopped listening, Bennett said.

SOAR's ongoing survival depends on gaining majority support, he said.

"Local elected officials consistently have pressure to develop those lands. The other side is very organized, will be relentless and will wear us down if we're not there pushing back," Bennett said.

Bennett hopes to find a central county location between Oak Park and Ojai where SOAR supporters can meet in the future. He suggested Camarillo.

New membership and fundraising is being sought. Groups of residents in each area of the county must be recruited to educate neighbors about SOAR and encourage them to buy locally grown produce to help keep farmland intact, Bennett said.

"The building industry association is literally keeping a file on every one of these land use battles out there," he said. "We've seen a tremendous narrowing of their focus on this issue. We have the potential of facing much more sophisticated attacks against us."

Marie Panec, an Oak Park resident who attended the meeting, was impressed by the organizers and their presentation.

"Ventura County is a great place to live because we have the ability to direct our future and really make a difference. Los Angeles doesn't have that," Panec said.

The SOAR issue is important to future generations, said Drew Fine, an Oak Park resident and new member of the community's recreation and planning committee.

"It's scary, the potential of losing this land," Fine said. "If people don't get involved then we're all just simply going to lose."

More SOAR meetings are being planned. For information, visit www.soarusa.org.

"SOAR is the strongest growth protection measure in the nation," Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said. "There isn't anything stronger than putting it in the hands of the voters."