The planning function began in the late 1930s with the administration of the County’s subdivision ordinance. It was not until March 18, 1947 that the first Zoning Ordinance (no. 412) was adopted (along with the Building Code). The initial Zoning Ordinance was very brief. It enumerated a few regulations, but perhaps more importantly imposed zoning on unincorporated land for the first time. This was “All Inclusive” (A-I) zoning and it was gradually replaced with patches of other zoning such as residential, commercial and industrial. By the late 1960's, the Zoning Ordinance included most of the elements that are found in the ordinance today, although there were significant changes along the way. In the mid 1980’s, the ordinance was significantly reformatted and the number of different zones was reduced. Along the way new uses were accommodated such as telecommunications and new standards were adopted to address environmental impacts.
The first Planning Director was Louis J. Borstelmann who arrived in the late 1930’s. Allegedly, he was drafted into the military, but returned after the war to resume his duties. He was clearly the longest serving Planning Director. Two directors (Victor Husbands and Thomas Berg) went on to become the directors of the Resource Management Agency that includes the Planning Division. The following is a list of the County’s Planning Directors:
- Louis J. Borstelmann 1937 - 1960
- William Johannsen 1960 - 1961
- John Tapking 1961 - 1964
- Eugene Wheeler 1964 - 1969
- George Allen 1969 - 1971
- Victor Husbands 1971 - 1979
- Dennis Davis 1979 - 1985
- Thomas Berg 1985 - 1988
- Keith Turner 1988 - 2001
- Christopher Stephens 2001 - 2006
- Kimberly Prillhart 2006 – 2019
- Dave Ward 2019 - present
The first General Plan was adopted in 1964. It was preceded by a couple of regional plans: “Plan of Regional Parks, Riding Trails and Hiking Trails” (1947) and the General Plan of Highways (1960). In the early and mid 1970s’ federal and State funds were available to update general plans. This funding, coupled with laws that required the updating of general plans, and the State’s mandate to include several new “elements” in general plans led to significant amendments to the County’s General Plan during the 1970’s.
One of the new required “elements” of the general plan was the “Open Space” element. It was adopted in 1973 with a “Conservation” element. The Open Space element became the de facto general plan land use element because in 1973 the State required zoning to be consistent with the Open Space Element.
Prior to this date there was no formal requirement that the General Plan be followed or that zoning be consistent with it. The net result was that the Open Space Element effectively superseded the Land Use element of 1964 to become the driver in control of land use decisions.
In the early 1980’s, the general plan was formally updated to incorporate all the various “elements” that had been developed during the 1970’s. Most importantly, the Land Use Element from 1964 was formally replaced with a new Land Use Element that reflected the basic form of the Open Space element from 1973. The major exception was that “Agricultural” was now a separate land use category rather than being subsumed under the broader heading of “Open Space”. The structure of the Land Use Element has remained fundamentally unchanged since the early 1980’s.
There were several events that preceded the preparation of the first Open Space Element that were very influential. The first was the adoption of the Guidelines for Orderly Development through the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). These Guidelines were adopted by the County and the cities and essentially said that urban development should be directed to the cities and not occur in the unincorporated areas.
About the same time, LAFCO developed Areas of Interest and Spheres of Influence that addressed the timing of annexations to cities and generally created rather compact development patterns, unlike the development patterns experienced in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. It accomplished this by effectively limiting the number of cities that could be created in the County and then limited the pace at which cities could annex and develop new land. The Open Space Element was therefore able to formally reflect these principles in the context of the General Plan, thus further solidifying them. Generally these concepts led to compact areas set aside for urban development that slowly grew over time.
Concurrent with the adoption of the Guidelines for Orderly Development was the adoption of several Greenbelt Agreements between pairs of adjacent cities and the County. The first was between Ventura and Santa Paula. Presently most of the County’s agricultural areas are subject to these “agreements” that generally say no participating agency will annex into the area or allow “urban type” uses to be established there. The creation of these agreements tended to buttress the LAFCO Guidelines and keep urban development from growing together as it did in other Southern California counties.
Another important theme that was nurtured through the late 1970’s and into the early 1990’s was the concept of regional planning that tried to incorporate the interests and forces that invariably related to one another. The Open Space Element was done in conjunction with most of the cities and so was a somewhat regional plan. The Regional Land Use Plan (RLUP) went beyond this by integrating air quality, water quality and transportation planning into one process. This wasa great step forward in regional planning and set the tone for future collaborative regional planning efforts addressing agriculture, open space, beach erosion, and watershed planning. In these planning efforts there has been a consistent attempt to include the affected nonprofit interest groups and governmental jurisdictions.
Organizationally the Planning Department functioned independently until the mid 1970’s when it was merged into the Environment Resource Agency (ERA) with several other independent departments such as Building and Safety, Environmental Health, the Farm Advisor, Agricultural Commissioner, Animal Control, and Air Pollution Control District. In the 1980’s the agency was re-titled the Resource Management Agency (RMA) and it began to shed some of its divisions, specifically the agricultural, animal control and air pollution functions. The Planning Department remains a “Division” of the RMA just as it was a Division of the ERA.
Two major events significantly shaped the Division’s functions beginning in the mid 1970’s. The first was the adoption of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that is probably most famous for instigating the use of Environmental Impact Reports (EIR’s) that are sometimes required for development projects. This law resulted in much greater attention being paid to environmental factors in the Zoning Ordinance, General Plan, and the processing of permits for various projects.
The second major event was the adoption in 1976 of the California Coastal Act. This act required local jurisdictions to adopt plans and ordinances to specifically address coastal properties and resources. The County’s Coastal Plan and accompanying Coastal Zoning Ordinance were adopted in the early 1980’s and remain largely unchanged. Some jurisdictions have yet to adopt such plans and ordinances.
Changing technology has been a continuous force bearing down on the Division. In the mid 1970’s there were no copy machines only mimeograph machines that used paper stencils “cut” on manual and electric typewriters. There were no computers or word processing machines. The IBM Selectric typewriter with two or three interchangeable print “balls” was the most advanced piece of “word processing" equipment available. These were not displaced until the early 1980’s when keyboards hooked to very crude and limited memory banks were introduced. The expense of such systems meant they were confined to a Word Processing Center where a central pool of secretaries converted hand written materials into typed text. The “Center” was only slowly phased out in the 1990’s as the Division was able to introduce individual desktop computers which allowed individuals to prepare their own typed documents.
Maps were prepared entirely by hand until the mid 1990’s when electronic digital maps became possible. These maps are created on computers and are printed by large “plotters” which are similar to desktop computer printers. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are now being employed to integrate mapped information, textual/tabular data and aerial images. This information is now generally viewed on computer screens by staff as access to this tool is extended. These capabilities will eventually be extended to the public via the Internet. The Division is now developing it own web site which will serve as a new way to communicate with the public and provide services 24 hours a day.