CoLAB Engages in General Plan Focus Groups

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By: Lynn Jensen and Sean Paroski 

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The Ventura County General Plan Update “will help shape the next 20 years of Ventura County’s growth and change” according to the Planning Division’s first newsletter (March 2017).  This will be the first time since 1988 that the plan has had a comprehensive update. The update process will lead to “the development of goals, policies and programs covering a very broad range of issues.”

In September of 2015, The Board of Supervisors approved a work plan with a total budget of $4.5 million, to be completed before the summer of 2020. The work plan identified five additional General Plan Elements/Topics to be addressed in the update: Water, Agriculture, Economic Development, Community Health, and Climate Change. These topics may be addressed as separate chapters or themes throughout the General Plan.

The work plan has a robust community outreach program funded to the tune of $428,000. This includes the creation of seven local Focus Groups formed by the Planning Division to address the following topics: Water, Agriculture, Open Space / Recreation, Housing, Economic Development, Transportation / Infrastructure and Climate Change. According to the March 2017 newsletter, the focus groups were formed “to provide technical and policy input on draft general plan documents. Focus Group participants include representatives from existing boards and commissions as well as local and regional stakeholders with expertise in given issue areas.”

The first set of Focus Group meetings were held in April of 2016. These meetings solicited the participants to identify assets, issues and opportunities for each topic. In the summer of 2016, a community outreach program included twelve community workshops held throughout the county, a booth at the County Fair and an online questionnaire. In the Planning March 2017 newsletter, a synthesis of the 4,725 public comments is shown in the following graphic:

What we see loud and clear in the public comments are the high number of responses in support of agriculture in Ventura County.  Agriculture is #2 in all three response areas including what they love, recognizing the challenges and making the community better. In “Our Biggest Challenges”, agriculture ranked higher than transportation, housing and public safety, all of which are major challenges impacting our quality of life. This is a clear direction to our County Board of Supervisors to support viable agriculture in the updated General Plan goals and policies.

The second set of Focus Group meetings were held last week and CoLAB members and board members were fully engaged – see the Roster of Focus Group Members for our representation on the seven Focus Groups. CoLAB staff participated in all meetings. Lynn is a Water Focus Group Member and also attended the Agriculture and Open Space / Recreation meetings. Sean attended the Economic Development, Transportation, and Climate Change meetings. The Housing Focus Group was not scheduled.

The purpose of these meetings was to review the newly released Draft Background Report consisting of 11 topics including Demographics and Economics; Land Use; Health and Well Being; Housing; Transportation and Mobility; Public Facilities; Services and Infrastructure; Natural Resources; Agriculture; Water Resources; Hazards and Safety; and Climate Change. Focus Group meetings specifically solicited comments to the “Major Findings Executive Summary” which is a compilation of the major findings for each chapter.

Representatives of the consulting team Mintier Harnish facilitated the meetings. In introductory comments, representative, Jim Harnish, stated that in his experience, early representation by stakeholders during the background report stage was rare in a county general plan update process and that this was requested by the Board of Supervisors.

The following comments to the General Plan Background Report chapters are summarized as follows as well as links provided to our full comment letters:

Water Resources

In general, the draft Water Resources Chapter does not properly represent Ventura County’s determination to excel in water supply, treatment and environmental solutions. While there are certainly challenges, the General Plan update should be more balanced in its characterization of water resources and reflect the positive collaborative efforts by water producers and users to manage the resource in the future.

The chapter particularly expresses a consistent bias against development and agriculture even while admitting in the Natural Resources Chapter that nearly half of the County land is in National Forest and only 9 percent is classified as developed. The current myriad of regulations require new developments to mitigate impacts to water quality and runoff. Agriculture can increase infiltration and recharge to groundwater can be increased.

The Major Findings Section of the Water Resources Chapter needs to be more positive, appreciating the County’s land conservation and stewardship of the past, considering all of the present beneficial uses of water as important and focusing on potential solutions to provide water in the future.

Agriculture

The draft Agriculture Chapter of the Background Report does not effectively characterize the importance of agriculture and the needs of the industry to retain its current planted acreage in the County. Agriculture is more than a land use designation. It is more than a placeholder to limit growth and maintain a free viewshed. Farming and ranching permeate the culture in Ventura County. Many of the streets are named after farming families, some families who have farmed for over a century. Agriculture is unique in Ventura County and needs to be characterized as more than just farm size and the average age of farmers.

We recommend that a paragraph in this chapter be devoted to the history of farming in the County and that the Agricultural Commissioner and the Farm Bureau Ventura County be consulted for pertinent facts.

While many of the statistics are well presented, the analysis of the State Important Farmland statistics are difficult to follow and are not well stated. The 2012 Census of Agriculture is also suspect with respect to its statistics. The Agricultural Commissioner Crop report should be the standard for characterizing Ventura County agriculture and the Chapter should be updated with the 2015 report. In addition, the section on Commodity Processing needs to be corrected.

Most importantly, The Major Findings section is severely lacking pertaining to “agricultural advancement”. The Agriculture Chapter discusses farm characteristics and agricultural production values but does not discuss the key threats to agriculture in Ventura County. The draft document seems to be content in concentrating on the preservation of agricultural land and missing the importance of the economic viability of agriculture, which will ultimately determine its future.

Natural Resources

Our two major comments on the Natural Resources section refer to the Locally Important Species lists and the characterization of the South Coast Missing Linkages Report with respect to wildlife linkages.

CoLAB is concerned about the County’s ability to maintain the Locally Important Species List and to make sure that the species on the list continue to meet the criteria. The current list is dated 2014; there is not an updated list for 2015 or 2016 which is a violation of the policy. CoLAB submitted 51 data sheets in 2015 challenging species on the plant list and has not had a response. We recommend that the County assess this program and determine whether it has added any value to the biological assessments and whether it is worth funding the effort going forward in the General Plan update.

With respect to wildlife linkages, we recommend that participants in the general plan update process carefully read the South Coast Missing Linkages Project (SCMLP) reports and gain an understanding of the scope of what is being proposed and the potential impact on not only county residents and businesses but also County Public Works projects in the linkage areas. Further, we recommend that the County notify all property owners that are within the boundary of the current linkage design that their parcels are being considered for a regulatory action. If this were happening to your property, you would want to be informed!

The SCMLP Reports were drafted by a non-profit organization with staff that were mostly from out of our County. Participants in the Reports were mischaracterized in the Major Findings bullet point in the General Plan by using the terms “land manager” and “community organizations” to sound like there was community outreach. There was no public outreach and no community organizations or private landowners were invited to the workshop or to be part of the process.

VC CoLAB understands the value of wildlife linkages in our County. However, we believe that the preservation of existing linkages will require a collaborative process involving the landowner community, local biologists, conservation organizations and local public agencies to analyze the details of the mapped areas identified by the SCMLP report and reach a consensus of what is best in our county. In these forums there can be discussions of how to preserve large tracts of land in the linkages through clustering, trading of development rights, incentivizing conservation easements and other methods that are working in other parts of the country.

Economic Development

The County compiled a detailed background report on demographic and economic trends in Ventura County.  The breakdown of data on jobs, wages and poverty levels by Planning Area and Census Designated Places is particularly useful as it demonstrates a wide range of differing economic circumstances throughout the county.  This will help future policy-making efforts by allowing the County to evaluate future regulations or initiatives on whether they meet the employment needs of a broad cross-section of county residents.

We recommend that changes be made, however, to the Background Report to improve its usefulness in informing future policy decisions, particularly in the sections on the agriculture and tourism industries in Ventura County.  The Market Outlook sections for both Agriculture and Tourism contain speculation on job growth through specific activities.  However, the Background Report should include a frank assessment of the limitations that current County policy places on growth in these sectors.

For example, in the Market Outlook section on Agriculture, the Background Report says that there “may be a demand for increasing value-added food processing, organic farming, commodity packing, shipping and distribution in the County, some of which may result in increased jobs in the unincorporated area.”

With respect to food processing, facilities other than wineries are only allowed in the limited industrial zones in the unincorporated area and are not generally compatible uses within cities. In addition, the limitations in the SOAR ordinance on the small allowance for designation changes on Agricultural lands to accommodate food processing is unlikely to create significant jobs.  While the background report correctly states the potential demand for food processing, the Ventura County Zoning Ordinance would need to be revised to allow a broader  range of pre-processing activities in agricultural areas to increase agricultural job growth in the unincorporated areas.

In addition, we fail to see job growth from the demand for “organic farming” as this would replace acreage in conventional farming. Likewise with commodity packing, shipping and distribution – with the current water restrictions and other regulations placed on agriculture, it seems highly unlikely that more acreage or a higher volume of products will be grown in Ventura County by the General Plan horizon of 2040.

A similar problem exists in the Market Outlook section on Tourism, specifically the discussion of agri-tourism.  The Background Report states that “Ventura County may be well positioned to expand lodging as part of an increased emphasis on agri-tourism.”  However,  hotels and motels are not allowed in open space and agricultural zoning with the exception of Boarding Houses and Bed-and Breakfast Inns.  The current permit requirements in the Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance for these structures preclude any growth in this sector. Unless the cities themselves provide it, there is no existing way to expand the supply of lodging for agri-tourism in the unincorporated areas.

Similarly, the Background Report’s discussion of other counties’ ability to offer farm and wine trails, ranch stays and other local farm experiences ignores the fact that many of these are either  unlikely in Ventura County (the glassy-winged sharpshooter infestation inhibits grape growing in the county) or prohibitively expensive, as many of the activities necessary for agri-tourism require Board of Supervisors Approval.  The existing barriers to agri-tourism activities make it an extremely unlikely source of economic growth in the County.

We understand that the Background Report is a descriptive document rather than a policy platform.  However, where aspirational goals or speculation on areas for future growth are discussed, the document should include a realistic assessment of whether current policy inhibits or allows those activities.

Transportation

There were many valuable statistics about transportation and transit use in Ventura County included in the Transportation and Mobility chapter of the Background Report.  This information will be useful in helping determine the priorities of the county government in drafting the updates to the General Plan.  While we believe that the information compiled is a good start, we think that the addition of other useful data will improve the Background Report’s ability to make the transportation priorities of the County clear.

Given the emphasis that the County has placed on increasing active transportation usage, future policy decisions can be improved by including additional data on how pedestrians and bicyclists affect the total Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).  The final Background Report should indicate how both existing pedestrian and bicycle usage reduce VMT in the county as well as include the cost of maintaining existing bikeways and pedestrian facilities.  This will help the County better evaluate the cost effectiveness of different transportation solutions, both in reducing VMT as well as other goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This is especially relevant given the projected shortfall in road maintenance funding that the County will experience over the next few decades.  The municipal and county governments combined have a projected shortfall of $438 million over 10 years and $2.2 billion over 30 years.  Given this significant funding problem, the County should look at ways to create new bikeways and pedestrian routes along existing roads.  This will allow for greater efficiency of maintenance funds, as dollars are spent on existing roadways that already need maintenance as opposed to spending money on upkeep for separate active transportation infrastructure.

Moving forward

The next two years will see continued development of the General Plan based on the finalized version of the Background Reports.  As hearings continue for changes to the General Plan, CoLAB will continue to advocate for more sensible land use, housing and infrastructure policies that will enhance economic growth and bring jobs to Ventura County.