By Linda Parks
The recent Pacific Coast Business Times article by Alex Kacik recapping Ventura County voters’ approval of SOAR, “SOAR Passage Will Stifle Economy,” presented a narrow and one-sided perspective of SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources). However, readers of the article know there is more to the picture. Certainly voters, who have enjoyed SOAR protections for two decades, do see the benefits, as shown by their overwhelming support for renewing SOAR, in some cities by as much as 76 percent of the vote.
The article’s emphasis that land values could be higher if the farmland was developed overlooks the broader economic benefits SOAR provides in maintaining a vital agricultural industry, rejuvenating cities, reinforcing smart growth and promoting long-term investment and economic sustainability.
Simply put, you need farmland in order to farm. With $2 billion in gross value, agriculture remains one of the largest economic sectors of Ventura County’s economy. It continues to see job growth and, year after year, increasing crop values. Additionally, by protecting farmland in the unincorporated area, SOAR encourages investment in the cities.
The Ventura County Farm Bureau recognizes the importance of urban growth boundaries as described in their land use policy:
“Restrictive urban boundaries are essential for the free market to recognize the values of urban land. By adhering to boundaries, value within the cities is created to promote re-development. Conversely, restrictive urban boundaries also protect agriculturally zoned lands by relieving from them speculative values created by urbanization pressures. Farmland that enjoys a free market based on agricultural values is essential for land to remain in long-term agricultural production.”
Where an economist complains SOAR artificially induces a scarcity of buildable land, the truth is land by definition is finite. We can choose to have scarcity and preserve open lands, or we can pave it all over for one-time profit and then have scarcity.
Suggestions that SOAR is responsible for higher housing costs don’t consider the fact that comparable areas, like Orange County that has paved over all its farmland, have higher housing costs. Housing prices are higher here and in other coastal California counties because it’s a desirable place to live.
Yet SOAR isn’t strictly no-growth. Of the 11 times projects have come up for a SOAR vote, more than half have been approved, with voters removing more than 8,000 acres from SOAR protections. If they think a development is beneficial, for example a business that will bring in good jobs, or a planned development that will bring in needed homes, voters can be supportive. But voters are clearly more discerning and, unlike politicians, are not swayed by campaign contributions.
We know from experience that SOAR works. We also know that this one land use policy isn’t the sole determinant of our county’s economy, which has been more stable and with lower unemployment rates than other counties in the state. Over the decades, we have held to the goals of our county’s General Plan and not surrendered the farmland to the land use demand of the day, be it hotels, manufacturing, housing, offices, etc. Just like having a varied investment portfolio, having a balanced land use plan helps a region weather market fluctuations.
There are many benefits of SOAR, from engaging the public through its requirement of a vote of the people, to having locally grown produce, less traffic and air pollution, more nature and places to recreate, greater investment in urban renewal, and a quality of life that entices CEOs to move their companies here.
We also know that SOAR contributes positively to our economy, despite gloomy assertions to the contrary.
• Linda Parks is a member of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.