The proposed Mission County is one step closer to existence now, say petitioners who claim to have finally met their goal in a signature drive.

The Citizens for County Organization (CFCO) ended its petition drive on Tuesday with approximately 36,000 signatures. The group of North County residents has been petitioning since April 2002 to put a measure on the 2006 ballot that would, if passed, split Santa Barbara County in two.

CFCO must submit 20,779 valid signatures, from 25 percent of the county’s registered voters, in order for a feasibility study on the proposed Mission County to take place. The group has 60 days to submit its signatures to the county clerk for validation, and has decided to wait until after the municipal elections in November to do so.

If the required number of signatures are deemed valid by the county clerk and certified by the board of supervisors, the governor will appoint an independent committee to determine the feasibility of splitting the county. This group would have six months to determine whether the new county is economically viable and would also be responsible for deciding electoral boundaries. Once the committee’s report is completed, the board of supervisors must place the measure on the ballot for the next major election.

The proposed Mission County would extend from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the San Luis Obispo County line, separating the urban South County from the more rural North County. CFCO, which includes 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno and Lompoc Mayor Dick DeWees, was formed in 1999.

CFCO argues that the agricultural North County is underrepresented in county politics despite recent population increases and cultural differences. By forming Mission County, CFCO hopes that North County residents will be able to determine their own quality of life.