Ventura County Planning a General Plan Update

By Sheryl Hamlin

On Tuesday, July 7, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors held a Joint Study Session with the County Planning Commission to “Receive and File a Presentation Regarding the Progress to Date on the Preliminary Work Tasks for the General Plan Update Work Program; and for the Board of Supervisors to Provide Direction to Staff”. This meeting was noticed previously here.

First, it is important to understand history of planning laws in California. Here are important milestones:

  • 1907 First Subdivision Map Act enacted.
  • 1915 Cities authorized to create planning commissions.
  • 1917 Initial zoning law enacted.
  • 1927 Cities and counties authorized to prepare master plans (general plans).
  • 1929 Adoption of master plans made mandatory for those cities and counties establishing planning commissions (based largely on the 1928 U.S. Department of Commerce Model Standard City Planning Enabling Act). Subdivision Map Act revised enabling local governments to require dedication of improvements.
  • 1937 All cities and counties required to adopt master plans. Cities and counties authorized to prepare “precise plans” (similar to specific plans of today) to implement the master plan.
  • 1953 Planning law recodified into Government Code §65000, et seq.
  • 1955 Land use and circulation elements required in the general plan.
  • 1965 Planning and Zoning Law reorganized. Cities and counties authorized to prepare “specific plans.
  • 1967 Housing element required in the general plan (effective July 1, 1969).
  • 1970 Conservation and open-space elements required in the general plan.
  • 1970 California Environmental Quality Act CEQA
  • 1971 Safety, seismic safety, noise, and scenic highway elements required in the general plan. Zoning and subdivision approvals required to be consistent with the adopted general plan.
  • 1973 OPR issues first General Plan Guidelines.
  • 1974 Subdivision Map Act recodified from the Business and Professions Code into the State Planning and Zoning Law within the Government Code.
  • 1975 Legislature clarifies statute on general plans’ internal consistency.
  • 1980 Detailed content standards and adoption procedures added to the housing element requirement. Appeals court says public works must be consistent with general plan (Friends of B Street).
  • 1982 Appeals court says land use and circulation elements must correlate (Twaine Harte).
  • 1984 Planning statutes substantially revised, seismic safety and scenic highways elements dropped as required elements, seismic safety merged with safety element.
  • 1990 California Supreme Court says zoning in conflict with the general plan invalid (Lesher Walnut Creek).
  • 2001 Legislature requires General Plan Guidelines to include environmental justice

From the above chronology, it can be seen that planning principles have a long history in California. The General Plan ordinance is encoded into law here. When California enacted CEQA, the General Plan became a “project” to be analyzed against CEQA standards. California Office of Attorney General (OAG) provides an overview of this process here. The CEQA review of the General Plan occurs as the final step to certify the new General Plan. The State of California summarized CEQA guidelines here and General Plan Guidelines here.

In January 2015, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors authorized the Resource Management Agency (RMA) to issue a Request-for-Proposal (RFP) to a planning firm to define the Scope of Work for the upcoming General Plan Update. The letter from the RMA Director, Kim Prillhart, explains the history of the Ventura county General Plan and research the RMA department performed in deciding on the preliminary Scope of Work definition. By reviewing the options in advance of the creation of a General Plan and limiting the scope, the county can produce a new General Plan more efficiently and more cost effectively than taking an open-ended approach.

The firm of Mintier Harnish, Planning Consultants, was chosen from the RFP process. Two members of this firm, Jim Harnish, JD, Principal/Owner, and Ted Holzen, Senior Project Manager, presented this report on July 7, 2015. Supervisor Long emphasized in introducing the planners, that this step is the first in a long process of the creation of a new General Plan during which the public will have many opportunities for comment. The 79 slide presentation was discussed on a slide by slide basis with questions and comments from both Supervisors and Planning Commissioners, but primarily from Supervisors Bennett and Parks.

Mr. Harnish explained the relation of the General Plan to other county planning processes and decisions with this hierarchy in slide 7.

planning_hierarchy

Mr. Harnish reviewed the history of the county’s General Plan indicating that it had been comprehensively updated in 1988, followed by a technical update in 2005 extending the date to 2020 and a Housing Element added in 2013 (slide 14). The word “comprehensive” means that the plan was essentially rewritten. Another approach is a “technical” rewrite wherein language is reviewed for legal and logical consistency without changing the underlying elements or vision. The Plan is required to have seven (7) topical elements, but these can be combined and, in fact, the county’s current plan shows a combination of the elements. Mintier Harnish is recommending the elements be separated for clarity with the addition of “topics”. However, in Public Comments, Mr. Bruce Smith took issue with the “cookie cutter” approach of using elements and said all should be in chapters.

The seven required topical elements are:

  • Conservation
  • Open Space
  • Housing
  • Land Use
  • Noise
  • Safety
  • Circulation

There are dozens of additional topical elements which can be added (slide 40). Note that the analysis of each element carries a specific cost.

additional_topics

During the 12 week period of this scoping process, Mintier Harnish held community outreach meetings. One of their findings was this chart of community based priorities (slide 16). A speaker in Public Comments, Debra Pendrey, President and Executive Director of the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, said it “broke her heart” to see Climate Change in last place because she and her organization felt that it should be the driving force in all planning decisions.

 priorities

As to costs, Mintier Harnish produced costs for comprehensive and technical updates, as well as expenditures from other counties and cities. These ranged from $1 million at the City of Novato to $5 million for El Dorado County (slide 62). He also said the Monterey County has spent $10 million, a number which may escalate due to legal challenges, a problem he said that could be mitigated with massive outreach and constant communication. Communication should take many forms, including digital surveys, mailed surveys, community forums, website progress reporting and phone surveys. One of the recommendations is a web-based General Plan using as much graphical representation as possible with links to county planning ordinances.

The timeframe is also a cost consideration. A plan that is finished faster will cost less. Citing the city of Hayward, as an example of an agency which had met its deadline, and also the 1988 Ventura County plan, which was finished in one year, Supervisor Bennett tried to pare out unnecessary topics and analyses which would extend the timeframe. Based on the consultant recommendation, the new Ventura County General Plan could cost $4 million, which could qualify for the one-time funds, according to the county CEO.

There were several mentions of the Guidelines for Orderly Development, a planning document that essentially says that development will be within urban boundaries while retaining agricultural land. Both Supervisors Bennett and Parks felt the principles in this document have sustained the test of time to be considered as part of the vision. However, when it came to the discussion of agriculture, the notion of “Agriculture Economics” was put forth by several commissioners, wherein agricultural land could be used for agricultural related industry such as packing houses or distribution centers and might even include worker housing.

The consultants are also recommending a dedicated planning staff during the life of the project. However, Supervisor Bennett did not feel that the creation of a General Plan Advisory Committee was worthwhile because the existing planning process, including the county Planning Commission, would bring their trove of county knowledge to the process.

As mentioned earlier, the current General Plan was extended until 2020, so there was discussion about extending the next plan until 2050. Ms. Prillhart indicated that her resource department was already in communication with VCTC (Ventura County Transportation Commission) about its long range forecasts. The consultants said that climate change data would also be necessary for this period.

Public Comments

  1. Lynn Rodriquez, Watershed Coalition, reported on the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan costing $1.2 million, the data of which will be available to the county for the new General Plan.
  2. Laura Gullickson requested “library justice” citing the “illegal” closure of the East Ventura library putting 70,000 residents without a library for five years.
  3. Jean Beyer suggested purchasing the former Fresh & Easy store for a branch library.
  4. Ross Bagerly, Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency, spoke about the new SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014) and the issue of GSP authority, particularly in well placement. He noted that his agency had DWR (Depart of Water Resources) approval as the GSA (Groundwater Sustainability Agency) for this area.
  5. Steve Nash reported on conflicting water data reports from various agencies, suggesting that the discord between the agencies is reducing available water for agriculture and suggested that water management was “too big” for these individual agencies.
  6. Marlin Hale from Simi Valley noted an inconsistency in the current General Plan about noise measurement, which should be corrected in the new General Plan.
  7. Bruce Smith, former county planner, indicated that his group produced the maligned 1988 plan using the best technology and practices of the 1980’s and suggested five elements be combined into one chapter, along with other recommendations and mapping programs to policies.
  8. Lynn Gray Jensen, Ventura County Colab, talked about ensuring that agricultural land stays economically viable.
  9. Sandy Smith, Civic Alliance, encouraged the addition of the economic development optional topic into the General Plan stating that its price would be valuable for the future.
  10. Kevin Cannon, citizen, had attended various meetings and stated that although well organized, the county should invest in other technologies for citizen input, because not everyone can attend meetings.
  11. Debra Pendrey, Ojai Valley Green Coalition, said that climate change should be the driving force of the General Plan.

Motion

After the supervisors and commissioners spoke their preferences and concerns, Supervisor Bennett made the following motion.

He moved that the county

  1. Accept staff’s recommendation and findings
  2. Look at a hybrid between the comprehensive and technical approaches
  3. Staff to prepare an analysis of optional elements
  4. Staff to prepare a list of resources
  5. Work Plan should include updating area plans in a cost effective approach
  6. Outreach more broad than community meetings
  7. Staff to take charge of this process and deliver on deadline
  8. Staff to propose a realistic deadline

The motion passed unanimously.

This 4 hour meeting can be viewed here.

It was also decided to have staff present at the August 4th and August 11th meeting with consultants. Supervisor Long reiterated that this meeting was just a first step and they were looking forward to much citizen input.

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Sheryl Hamlin: With an MS in Industrial Engineering, Sheryl Hamlin spent years in technology with stints at Motorola, Tandem Computers and various startups. She has been on the boards of neighborhood organizations both in San Francisco and Palm Springs where planning issues were her specialty. She now resides in Santa Paula and loves the historic fabric of the city.  Ms. Hamlin’s blog Stealth Fashion  and  technology product ‘ Plug and Play Webmaster’.

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