OCEANSIDE — If a majority of Oceanside voters vote “yes” on the Save Open Space & Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative on the ballot in November, they’ll be following in the footsteps of residents of the cities of Ventura, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Oxnard and Simi Valley; and Ventura, Alameda, Stanislaus and Napa counties.
The first SOAR initiative, called Measure J, was a general plan amendment that Napa County voters approved in 1990. That initiative, like those that followed, was an attempt to slow the growth of development in the state. Slow-growth initiatives had been introduced as far back as the 1970s, as citizens became more concerned about the rapid pace of building, particularly in Southern California.
But it was the Napa County initiative that changed the way growth could be better controlled—by preventing any change in agricultural land use/re-zoning without the approval of voters. Prior to that time growth had been managed in other ways: through annual growth caps, infrastructure requirements and limits on building permits.
According to David Morrison, Director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services for Napa County, “The measure was very tightly written, essentially saying that any change in agricultural areas required a vote of the people. That’s a high bar to get over, which guarantees that Napa remains open. As a result, we’re one of the few Bay area counties that hasn’t seen urban sprawl.”
Because approval of the initiative would mean that the board of supervisors would no longer be able to change and/or adapt the general plan if they felt it was necessary, Measure J was highly controversial. So controversial and contentious in fact that once voters had approved it, a local landowner and the Building Industry Association of Northern California sued. The suit, Devita v. County of Napa, went all the way to the Supreme Court, who in a 1995 five-to-four decision decided in favor of the defendant (County of Napa) and determined that voters could amend a general plan.
Once the Supreme Court decision was handed down, Ventura County introduced an initiative similar to Measure J and called it SOAR, an acronym for Save Our Agricultural Resources, and in the ensuing years other counties and cities followed suit.
In the November 2008 general election Napa County voters extended the original measure, then called Measure P, through the year 2058. Voters in Ventura County voted in 2016 to extend their initiative for twenty years.
Like the other initiatives that preceded it, Oceanside’s SOAR proposition is designed to preserve agricultural land, as well as open spaces such as parks and recreation areas from being developed. The initiative is written to allow the voters, not politicians who may be beholden to special interest groups, decide how that land will be used by requiring that citizens vote before the city council can change any of the general plan sections pertaining to agriculture and open space.
Morrison gave a few examples of how this has worked in Napa County. “Four years ago the owners of a piece of land that’s a pumpkin patch at Halloween, where they sell Christmas trees during the holidays, wanted to erect a food stand on the premises. Last year a golf course wanted to add a restaurant. Both measures went on the ballot and both were approved.”
All of the initiatives have common goals of promoting “smart growth”, defined by Smart Growth America, a nationwide advocacy group as: an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement.
Ventura County Board of Supervisors member Steve Bennett (District 1) agrees that smart growth works. “SOAR has worked extremely well here in Ventura County. If it wasn’t for SOAR, I’m confident we would have lost our agricultural industry and the Oxnard plain would look more like the San Fernando Valley than an agricultural area.”
In the communities that have approved a SOAR initiative/measure, property values have risen as urban sprawl as decreased, natural spaces have been maintained including greenbelts between cities, and agri-tourism has introduced and educated both visitors and locals alike to the rich agricultural resources in the state.
Morrison said that the measures have not resulted in a decline in property values. “At $300-500 thousand per acre, Napa vineyard farmland is some of the most expensive agricultural land in the country.”
Bennett noted that the distinction between cities is another advantage: “Our cities are not growing together which has helped our sense of community. People are focused on development within the existing urban areas, leaving open spaces between the cities.”
Read the Oceanside SOAR initiative online at: www.oceanside-soar.org