Our city’s General Plan defines the fabric of our municipal lives, adding guidelines for development, doing business, recreation, the arts, education, open space, public safety, transportation, sustainability and civic involvement. The current plan was adopted in 2005, after seven years of more than 200 workshops and hearings.

In 2014 an ad-hoc committee of the City Council embarked on a process to address a variety of land use issues that have arisen since the plan was finalized. Ventura’s Planning Commission heard the details Wednesday night.

While the committee was no doubt well intentioned, it is clear community sentiment favors a more thorough discussion of these important issues in a full General Plan update process, due to begin at the end of this year. Wednesday night was a heartening example of cooperation as members of the activist and business communities came together in support of more transparency.

Briefly, the refinement sought to do the following things:

  • Distribute residential options in commerce- and industry-designated land use areas with an optional residential mixed use overlay.
  • Apply recommendations from the Montalvo Community Council to the Victoria Avenue/Montalvo area. These primarily restrict heights to three stories from a previously allowed six stories.
  • Resolve inconsistencies between the General Plan and zoning code.
  • Revise the text of the Our Prosperous Community Chapter of the General Plan.
  • Revise our principles for infill development.

The recommendations affected properties all over the city and resulted in some unpleasant surprises for landowners who received a cryptic card in the mail letting them know the zoning for their properties would be changed, prompting concerned calls to city planners.

The changes also resulted in a reduction in the number of parcels that could be developed as housing. “We realized we were pretty deep in the hole,” Planning Manager Dave Ward explained. So staff went through the city and identified vacant and underutilized sites where housing could go to provide the numbers the state is now requiring in order to meet the demand for housing.

Affordable housing advocates who attended the meeting felt the refinement would lessen the availability of places in our city to build this type of housing and many weighed in. Others cited the failure of the city’s mixed use policy in an era of declining retail sales.

Of particular interest to my area of town was a letter from the director of the Ventura County Planning Division. The changes, as well as current zoning, are not compatible with the county’s own Saticoy Area Plan which the city did not significantly participate in due to lack of resources, Ward said. Ventura provides water service to this area.

Planning Commissioner Rob Corley called the refinement and number of policy changes “overwhelming,” but felt there were parts of it that needed to be looked at sooner than a robust General Plan could be completed.

In the end the Planning Commission denied all of the changes citing inadequate public process and civic engagement, while still praising staff for the work that went into the refinement. This work could be used as a basis for several recommendations in a full General Plan update.

Good public policy should not be rushed. Careful consideration always needs to go into how government action affects the lives of those it serves. But the amount of public participation at this little-noticed but important public meeting gives me hope that we will have many robust discussions when we do a full General Plan update. And that is a good thing.