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Asphalt Spilling Forward: Ventura County is Losing its Countryside

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Vehicles zoom up and down the Conejo Grade in Ventura County at night.
Vehicles zoom up and down the Conejo Grade in Ventura County at night.  | Photo: macmcintire/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Long ago my great uncle owned an apple orchard. I was young at the time. The rows of trees seemed to stretch for miles. The wind carried the smell of both sweet and rotted fruit, because that's the way life is.

Not so long ago, agricultural fields lined the 101 freeway here in Ventura County. Some of the fields are still here, vast swaths that would have made Uncle Dwight smile his slow smile. But in many places the fields are pinned between buildings. Or they are gone.

Recently traffic congestion was in our news. Traffic is not news to anyone who lives here -- we've all been stuck in it -- but we still don't suffer like our neighbors to the south. It is one of the many reasons we live here. Perhaps it is one of the reasons you live where you do. But here in Ventura County and elsewhere, we all see things changing. New traffic lights in places where they once were once unnecessary. New roads. Expansions to existing roads. As I write this they are expanding the 101 freeway from Mussel Shoals up to Carpinteria, adding a new lane in each direction. When they are finished the new lanes will be Ventura County's first HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes. I'm not sure this is something to celebrate.

I'm betting your surroundings are changing where you live, too, and not always for the better and not for lack of good people trying to balance what we have with what we need. But sometimes progress is a blind, finger-pointing child, and when we act like this there is no turning back and good things are lost for good.

As I said, traffic congestion was recently in our news, an in-depth and well-written article in the Ventura County Reporter by Art Kraft titled, cleverly and ominously, "Destination Nowhere." In this article a Camarillo city official was asked to comment on a large residential development project proposed for a parcel of land at the foot of the Conejo Grade. If this particular residential community is built, it's estimated to add 40,000 car trips a day. I have no idea how one arrives at these estimates, but I do know that is a lot of people on the road, not to mention the end of more farmland.

The city official allowed that there would be some negative impacts.

"If the project has more of a negative impact than a benefit, and can't be corrected or mitigated back to a level that works well, then there is a need for what's termed overriding considerations, and the Camarillo City Council could determine that they have to make findings that identify why it would make sense to still allow a project," he was quoted as saying.

I know. I worked as a newspaper reporter long enough to recognize a mouthful of bureaucratic gobbledygook. The distilled version is if a city council sees a development as more beneficial than detrimental, they can go ahead. As you might imagine this is a subjective decision that has been made once or twice before, in my county and yours.

Later in the article the same city official said, "It's not the only project that would have or will be adding traffic to the freeway. Whether the project gets approved or not, there are other projects in and around Ventura County that will get approved. The project is one of the more responsible ones trying to address impact..."

I know. I was six years old once. Johnny drew on the slide with colored chalk, why can't I?

And so the asphalt spills forward.

I could single out enormous development projects recently completed here in Ventura County, vast sprawls of homes and shops and restaurants with their own schools. "It's HERE!" trumpets one such development's website. "Right outside your front door,.." To me, this reads more like "It's heeeeeere!" from "The Shining," but I'm not going to finger point. Individual developments are only the point in that they add up.

In the same traffic article Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks was quoted as saying, "It's a real eye-opener when you discover how many development projects have been approved in Ventura County. When people see what's coming and all those cars hit, you just have to shake your head."

I know that there are important considerations other than farmland and traffic congestion. Money for struggling cities. Jobs for struggling families. Suddenly it is not a dilemma for the playground aide anymore. Development is gray. Projects do indeed have their pros and cons. Concession do have to be made.

But I also fear the simple picture is lost amidst all the goobledygook and fearsome complexities.

There is a children's story called "The Little House." It was written in 1942 by Virginia Lee Burton. Like many childrens' books, it's better than most adult books. The story begins with a little house in the country. Slowly the city moves out to the country. Eventually the little house is surrounded by a world of skyscrapers, street cars, and subways. Then one day the great-great granddaughter of the builder discovers the little house sandwiched in the city. She moves the little house back out to the country, where the house once again enjoys the changing of the seasons and the apple-scented breezes.

It is a happy ending.

My great uncle's apple orchard was sold long ago, replaced by a sea of homes on winding residential streets. They were once far outside of town, but they aren't anymore.

So I ask Ventura County -- and yours, too -- a child's question.

What happens when there is no country to move to?

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