Growth limits have a downside

A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon in January. Joe Mathews writes that strict anti-sprawl policies are worsening California’s housing shortage.
A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon in January. Joe Mathews writes that strict anti-sprawl policies are worsening California’s housing shortage. Bloomberg

Ventura County is the most verdant of California kingdoms.

Just ask its princes and princesses, those fortunate enough to be able to afford to live there. The nearly 900,000 residents can pretend that they live in the country, with parks or farmland always nearby. The Kingdom of Ventura’s cities remain separate; they haven’t sprawled and melted into each other, as cities do elsewhere in Southern California.

Their secret? “No other county in the United States has more effective protections against urban sprawl,” says the website of SOAR, aka Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, a group of growth-controlling ballot measures.

Those SOAR protections have been in the laws of the county and its cities for two decades. SOAR effectively permits development only within certain urban boundaries and makes no allowances for population growth. If you want to develop protected open space or change the boundaries, you need a vote of the people.

Venturans like the results so much that in November, they are expected to extend the SOAR protections through 2050.

In effect, they’ve made their kingdom a mighty fortress. Those sprawling housing developments that fill the San Fernando Valley to the east? They stop at the county’s edge. It’s almost as if Ventura County built a wall along its border – and made neighboring Los Angeles pay for it.

But there is a problem with that wall, and within the kingdom. The princes and princesses have enjoyed the benefits of growth restrictions while avoiding some related responsibilities.

Smart growth strategies such as SOAR are not only supposed to preserve open space, but also must drive dense, transit-oriented development in urban areas where growth is still permitted.

But such infill development in Ventura County has lagged far behind what’s needed to serve the growing population and its housing needs. The same citizens who back SOAR have opposed denser developments and resisted transit investments to connect their cities.

The results are as obvious as the choking traffic on the 101 Freeway and housing prices that make Ventura County one of the country’s least affordable places. The lack of housing for middle- and lower-income people forces them to commute from outside the county and makes it hard for companies to grow there and create jobs.

“We need to be a little more mature about questions concerning infill development and higher density,” Bruce Stenslie, president of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County, said during a conference on SOAR.

Of course, immaturity about growth is not limited to Ventura County. The disease is California-wide: Grab your piece of the kingdom and keep out anyone who might come in after you.

Local anti-growth bias is now a major statewide issue as California faces a housing shortage.

That’s why Gov. Jerry Brown is championing legislation that would exempt many urban housing developments from local review. Many localities have responded to this statewide push defiantly, via ballot measures to block density and housing, as the Voice of San Diego documented.

But that is an invitation for development to be determined by a showdown between NIMBY demagoguery and self-interested political money, as opposed to any rational long-range planning.

One lesson from Ventura County is that growth boundaries shouldn’t be pursued in isolation. They must be tied to aggressive and rock-solid requirements for more housing for low-income and middle-income people.

So if a county wants to protect open space from development, great. But it must be compelled to open gates wide enough to bring more progressive development into the kingdom.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at