California Sprawl Sparks Competing Ballot Initiatives


FILLMORE, Ca. -- Hollywood painting contractor Paul Harding was skeptical when his wife started talking about escaping the hectic pace of big-city Los Angeles eight years ago.

But on a weekend drive through the rolling hills of Ventura County, which includes the northern suburbs of the sprawling Southern California metropolis, the couple discovered Fillmore.

A small farming community of 13,000, Fillmore is a place of seemingly endless expanses of citrus groves, mountains framing the skyline and a downtown rebuilt in 19th Century style after the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

On that first visit, the Hardings found a home. But now their vision of a quieter time and a gentler place are under threat -- in great part by people just like themselves, successful city dwellers yearning for a taste of rural life.

Farmland and open space have been gobbled up by new housing and commercial developments as city leaders attempt to nudge Fillmore's agricultural economy toward high-tech startups and tourism.

Now Harding and others are fighting back, having placed on the fall ballot the Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, which would require voter approval for any commercial or residential development outside of the current city limits until the year 2021.

In an increasingly intense battle against sprawl in California and states across the nation, proponents see the SOAR initiative as the best, last option. Already, seven other cities in Ventura County have passed similar initiatives and organizations throughout Southern California are studying how to follow suit.

"Fillmore reminded me of what Southern California was a long time ago. But the city council has made it very clear that it has no intention of keeping its promise to resist the pressures of development at all costs," Harding said.

Fillmore officials have countered with Vision 2020, an initiative that would significantly broaden the development boundary from its current status. With both measures approved for the Nov. 7 ballot, Fillmore, the self proclaimed "last, best small town in Southern California," is at a crossroads.

"This is a choice between preservation and development at all costs," Harding said.

But it is not just a question of development. It has become an issue encompassing history, economic priorities and race. Fillmore has Ventura County's lowest per-capita income, third-lowest household income, third-highest unemployment rate and highest minority population.

All of these things flow from the city's roots as a railroad stop and citrus farming center. City officials say the only way to improve conditions is to diversify revenue sources. And that means tourism and development.

"The town is just now starting to make a recovery from the earthquake, and we are trying to provide a bit more of a market. The SOAR initiative would basically put an end to all of that," said Fillmore Mayor Evaristo Barajas, who is a real estate broker by trade.

Economic development director Shirley Spitler says a change in the town's economic base is a natural outcome of its recovery from the earthquake.

"SOAR would keep businesses in town from fully recovering and likely keep out a lot of the businesses we are trying to attract," she said.

According to a report by city Manager Ron Payne, the SOAR initiative would result in a 26 percent increase in water rates, a 9 percent increase in sewer rates and require existing residents to shoulder the responsibility for $2.2 million in existing debts for capital improvements made in anticipation of future development.

SOAR, Payne says, will not slow down population. In fact, he says, it would cause the residential area of Fillmore to be completely built out by 2005 and cost the city some 2,500 new jobs.

Supporters of SOAR say they do not oppose all development, but do want a say in the process.

"We don't feel that the city is exercising a great enough sense of economy in developing the remaining land they have. They are talking about building a golf course and upscale home development on some of best agricultural land in the world. It makes you wonder what their genuine concerns are," SOAR sponsor Harding said.

City officials say it's imperative for them to draw in residents with higher incomes. SOAR opponents dispute the statistics cited in the city manager's report. Behind the numbers, though, some residents see a more disturbing trend.

City officials want to lure high-tech businesses and upper-income families to reshape the ethnic makeup of the community.

"Estate lots and golf courses and ranch homes are all different ways to say that they want to bring in upper-middle-class white families and push aside the minorities who helped build this community," retiree Ron Lima said as he sat chatting with a group of friends outside of City Hall.

City officials dismiss the claim as ridiculous. But it has nevertheless become a center of debate over the initiative.

"If their plan is to eventually have a Starbucks on every corner and an SUV in every driveway, then SOAR is something that they will not abide," said Kenneth Long, a lifelong resident.

"Fillmore is, and hopefully always will be, a town built on agriculture. If someone does not like that, why live here?"


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