Smart Growth in Action

Housing Capacity and Development in Ventura County

Executive Summary

Urban growth has emerged as a touchstone policy issue, particularly on the state and local levels, ushering in an unprecedented new wave of growth-management and growth-control legislation. More than a dozen states have enacted some form of statewide growth-management law, and 37 others are actively considering growth-management legislation or planning reform laws that will directly affect the pace, pattern, and quality of land development. On the local level, hundreds of growth-management initiatives make it to local and statewide ballots each election cycle. One of the more salient trends in this movement is toward “ballot-box zoning”—the process of passing growth-management legislation and mandates through popular vote. Ballot-box zoning has been particularly prevalent in California, where dozens of cities and counties have adopted urban-growth boundaries and other growth controls to limit new land development.

Growth controls, however, are not implemented in a political vacuum. Once policies are adopted, local politics figure prominently into whether planning goals will be realized. Particularly in the United States, where planning is explicitly local and must be adopted by locally elected officials, these constraints are important elements of the planning process and should be incorporated into an evaluation of their success and recommendations for further reform.

Despite the groundswell of activism and apparent public support for this new wave of growth management, remarkably little analysis has been done on whether local governments actually can, in fact, implement planning goals and visions. In part, the dearth of research is a result of the highly localized nature of growthmanagement initiatives. Few have yet seen the benefit of analyzing growth-management policies that are targeted toward local problems and framed by local values and issues. While the specifics of local growthmanagement policies may vary, the implementation issues are applicable to other cities in California and in other states.

Implementation issues, particularly assessments of the capacity of local communities to implement planning goals, are rarely addressed in the debate over Smart Growth or planning-law reform. This study begins to fill this void by examining the case study of Ventura County, California, a county of some 700,000 residents about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles and adjacent to Los Angeles County. Home to one of the most aggressive local approaches to growth management in the United States, Ventura County’s experience has important lessons for all local governments that attempt to plan development. This study also provides a general framework for citizens and policymakers in other communities to assess their own capacity for accommodating future growth through their local plans and evaluating the potential implications.

Between 1995 and 2000, Ventura County voters passed a series of growth-control measures (the “Save Openspace and Agricultural Resources,” or SOAR, initiative) that attempted to lock in existing land-use policies and require voter approval for conversion of agricultural, open space, or rural land to urban use. During the political campaign supporting the SOAR initiatives, proponents argued that the county, based on its current comprehensive plan, had the capacity to accommodate more than 60,000 new housing units before SOAR would expire in 2020. (A community’s comprehensive plan is the primary policy document for guiding urban development, and typically outlines where, what kinds, and at what densities new development will take place.) The existence of a suitable planned capacity was a key argument, because opposition to the ballot initiative centered on whether Ventura County could adequately plan for and accommodate new housing in sufficient quantities. No one during the campaign, however, conducted an analysis of housing capacity to verify the advocates’ claims.

To assess the ability and willingness of local governments to accommodate new growth, the researchers of this study reviewed housing trends, planning applications, and project approvals for all 10 cities in Ventura County. More than 120 projects, encompassing almost 12,000 approved housing units (covering more than two-thirds of the approved permits issued) were analyzed. After reviewing these projects as well as current planning policies and forecasted future demand, the authors concluded that the county is unlikely to be able to meet future housing demand, and that a crisis in housing supply will occur prior to SOAR’s expiration in 2020.

Ventura County will likely need at least 312,000 housing units by 2020—a projected increase of 60,000 units (24 percent) over the 2000 housing stock of 252,000 units. This is close to the estimate that advocates of SOAR used as they urged citizens to pass the initiative. Yet, under current policies, the planned capacity of the county is targeted at somewhere between only 293,500 and 298,500 housing units—an increase of between just 41,500 and 46,500 units, or 16.5 percent and 18.5 percent over the existing housing stock. This, however, is the highest number that might be approved. Since 1996, cities in Ventura County have approved development projects at densities much lower than planned capacities, generally falling 20 percent below zoned capacities and 45 percent below General Plan capacities. Thus, the likely future housing development in the county under current planning policies and entitlement practices will generate about 33,000 units: 55 percent below the regional planning agency’s housing target for 2020.

Research also found that the density of most projects was likely reduced during the pre-application stage of the project-approval process. Applications sought considerably fewer housing units than allowed under the General Plan. Then planning commissions and city councils reduced these densities by another 4 percent on average. Not all projects received equal treatment either. Affordable housing projects, multi-family projects, larger projects, and projects with plans tied to specific parcels of land were more likely to be approved at or near the capacity designated by planning policies, while smaller projects and projects in smaller cities tended to apply for and be approved at housing densities much lower than the capacities designated by planning policies.

Cities, counties, and state legislatures across the nation are considering initiatives that will greatly increase the scope of land-use regulation at all levels of government—reforms that closely resemble the policies implemented in Ventura County. Many of these growth-management and planning reforms involve a significant increase of public participation during the development-control process. Effective implementation of these reforms requires a practical understanding of the implementation issues surrounding growthmanagement reforms and development control, especially the capacity of local communities to meet their planning goals and objectives.

This study suggests that there are significant deficiencies in the capacity of existing planning systems to accommodate rational planning goals. Despite passing a countywide growth-management initiative in 1998, most cities in Ventura County have not adjusted their plans or their development-approval processes to accommodate expected housing demand, creating conditions that are likely to lead to further housing-price escalation and increased political manipulation of the housing market.

The analysis of Ventura County shows that most of its cities will face significant housing shortages well before the end of the county’s 25-year planning horizon. In fact, most cities in Ventura County have no more than 10 years of housing capacity left under current policies and entitlement practices.

SOAR will begin to have a major effect on new housing development between 2005 and 2010 as planned housing capacity is used up—first in a few cities, then gradually countywide. Development pressure will increase within cities to increase zoning densities, change General Plans to allow more housing, and possibly redevelop and rehabilitate existing housing. Projects that try to bring new land inside the growth boundaries for voter approval will need to be different from those approved in the past for development. Unless SOAR is changed or invalidated, the county and its cities are unlikely to meet estimated future demand for additional new housing, and tight housing market effects will increase over time. The lessons learned from the “laboratory” of Ventura County, a county with substantial experience in growth management and planning reform, could be valuable for other cities and counties across the U.S. that are wrestling with growth management.

This Study's Materials

  • Full Study, PDF, 401 KB
    William Fulton, Chris Williamson, Kathleen Mallory and Jeff Jones


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