Policy Study

Smart Growth in Action, Part II

Case Studies in Housing Capacity and Development from Ventura County, California

Executive Summary

The management of urban growth has emerged as one of the most important local policy issues in the nation. More than a dozen states have enacted some form of statewide growth management law, and most 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, growth management ordinances have become increasingly common, especially in the coastal states, with significant pressure for urbanization.

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 do, in fact, implement planning goals and visions. In part, the dearth of research is a result of the highly localized nature of growth management initiatives. 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 report is the second portion of a two-part study that attempts to help fill this void by examining the implementation of growth management techniques in Ventura County, California, a county of some 800,000 residents about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles and adjacent to Los Angeles County.

The first phase of this study was a quantitative analysis of residential development approvals in the county between 1996 and 2001. This second phase is a “case study” analysis examining six different residential development approvals in more detail.

We found that, despite the passage of Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) growth management initiatives, most cities in Ventura County had not amended their plans or their project approval processes to allow greater density within the boundaries of their municipalities. Quite the contrary, projects being approved in the cities were likely to have lower densities than the applicable general plans theoretically allowed. By failing to amend their plans or practices, cities were tacitly refusing to take any growth shunted from the SOAR-protected areas, in essence setting the stage for a crisis in housing supply to occur before SOAR’s sunset date in 2020 and an exacerbated housing price escalation in the meantime.

Some of the study’s findings specific to the mismatch between allowable and approved densities were these:

  • Relative to the densities allowed by general plans, projects approved in the county on average provided less than 80 percent of planned capacity.
  • Multi-family projects were less likely to be scaled back severely than were single-family ones.
  • Projects proposed within specific plan areas were subject to fewer reductions than those that were not.
  • Projects in bigger cities were more likely to be approved at close to the plan densities than projects in smaller cities.
  • Projects in the eastern part of the county were more likely to be approved at close to plan densities than in other parts of the county.
  • The largest capacity reductions were more likely to occur prior to or at the time of application, not during public review of the project.

This last finding in particular engendered another series of questions that suggested pursuing the second phase of the study: What was happening in the so-called “pre-application” stage to spur the density reductions?

In examining the possible answers to this question, we posed five possible explanations for reductions in planned density during the pre-application stage. These were:

  1. The Market. Developers know what is marketable in any given area at any given time and seek to provide a product that conforms to consumer demand; in some cases, this may mean reducing density. To remain competitive they must also bear in mind other current operating conditions-for example insurance availability, financing trends and tax incentives. Developers will make every reasonable effort to get their projects approved in the most cost- and time-efficient manner.
  2. Politics. Planners have a good sense of what their elected officials expect to see and will vote to approve. They are loath to advance any project that promises to be highly controversial into the public forum unless they have support from their officials to do so.
  3. “The Devil in the Details.” In the transition from policy to implementation, the site specifics may drive a wedge between what is theoretically allowed under a general or specific plan and what is permissible under zoning regulations or other ordinances that set development standards.
  4. Convenient Memory Loss or Myopia. The implication of the broad policy statements included in a general plan seldom hit home with residents until a specific development forced the issue. Even when neighbors have been involved in the general plan process, they may lose sight of the bigger picture when focusing on the vacant property adjacent to their own. Their perception of who was in control of the earlier general plan process-previous residents, developers, non-resident landowners-may erode their willingness to support the policies of the general plan.
  5. Aversion to Growth. Density is still a dirty word for many residents of Southern California. And many planners working in Ventura County may also be growth-averse. The SOAR initiatives created the presumption of limited growth and made no density-tradeoff promises.

In applying this conceptual framework, we selected six case studies of residential development approvals, ranging in size from 75 to 404 units and in density from 3 to 18 units per acre. They were approved at densities ranging from 42 percent to 100 percent of planned density and averaged out to 68 percent. In assessing these six case studies, we found that, of our five possible explanations, no one explanation was the dominant factor in density reduction, and in some cases it was a combination of all five. We did find that market factors, politics, and “the devil is in the details” emerged most frequently as reasons for the reductions. Based on the case studies, however, we did reach four conclusions about the reasons for density reductions in residential development approvals.

First, developers sometimes do ask for lower densities in order to meet their perception of market demand or other non-regulatory considerations.

In some cases, developers will seek lower densities because they believe the market will accept single-family and lower-density housing types. Other issues not associated with local land use regulations, such as construction defect liability, may also play a role.

Second, the capacity in plans cannot always be politically sustained, especially under the pressure of neighborhood opposition.

Planning policies are not always the result of widespread political consensus. Often, they are brokered by a few interest groups with the motivation or desire to “play the game” at the plan level, including developers and citizen groups. Many stakeholders will sit out the comprehensive planning process and attempt to overturn policies when specific projects are proposed.

Third, the actual application of planning processes often drives the density down below the capacity contained in plans.

Project-specific review in California is largely, but not entirely, driven by the dictates of the California Environmental Quality Act, which identifies impacts that could be significant and strongly encourages local governments to take steps to mitigate those impacts. The net result is a system that often drives down the density or drives up the cost or both.

Fourth, specific plans appear to make a significant difference in creating plans that can be implemented “as-is”.

A specific plan is a document that envisions the buildout of a specific part of a community, often under a separate set of planning policies and regulations. It is a hybrid document that includes planning policies, a buildout scenario, development regulations, and often a financial agreement between the developers and the city as well. Whereas general plans are “big picture” documents that both developers and citizens may have difficulty relating to, specific plans are often “real” enough to engage all parties in a meaningful way. Residents are less likely to stand outside the specific plan process than the general plan process because the issues are focused closer to home.