Reform or Regulation? Year of the Election Might Have a Split Personality

 

Call it the Year of the Election.

Every time you turn around during 2008, Californians are going to be voting on something. February. June. November. And, on the local level, probably some dates in between.

Property rights advocates will try to make it the year of eminent domain. Environmentalists will try to make it the year of climate change.

On the local level, various citizen groups will try to make it the year they assert themselves – as in Stanislaus County, where a February initiative would subject agricultural zone changes to a public vote.

Cast against the backdrop of a contentious presidential election, a real estate slump, and possibly a recession, it’s hard to discern what the impact on the California planning and development scene will be when the dust clears. But it is entirely possible that, electorally, we’ll see two Californias this year – the liberal one, which will emerge in February and November, and the libertarian one, which will become evident in June.

That’s because, at the state level, there will be not two elections but three – the presidential primary in February, the regular primary in June, and the presidential election in November. The February and November elections are likely to attract high voter turnout. Both parties will probably still be duking it out for the presidential nomination in February – that was the whole point of moving the primary up – and the general presidential election always draws a huge turnout.

That’s good news for the liberals, especially the environmentalists, who want to focus on climate change as a major issue in the presidential campaign.

But don’t overlook the regular June primary. Without the presidential headliners, it will almost certainly feature a much lower turnout. And that’s good news for the anti-government types at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who are trying to get their eminent domain initiative – call it “Son of Proposition 90” – on the ballot at that time (see CP&DR Redevelopment Watch, September 2007).

Little more than a year ago, California voters barely rejected Proposition 90, a wide-ranging initiative that would have reined in eminent domain, and would have redefined the idea of a “taking of property” to include a lot of garden-variety land use regulation (see CP&DR Insight, December 2006). The initiative got 47.5% of the vote even though the proponents didn’t really run a campaign.

Proposition 90 came so close that everybody recognized an initiative restricting eminent domain was there for the taking, emboldening the taxpayer groups and scaring the local governments. The Jarvis group and the local government associations danced together for a while this year, trying to write a measure they could agree on.

Eventually, however, the Jarvis people went their own way. But they did so with an initiative that is, in many ways, much less sweeping than Proposition 90. The proposed measure clamps down on eminent domain for economic development purposes, as Proposition 90 did, but it doesn’t extend its reach to land use regulation in the same way. The measure does, however, effectively place a ban on rent control – a provision that has already drawn financial support from landlords but which will likely generate political heat from big-city activists and mobile home residents. The Jarvis group also got the California Farm Bureau Federation on board by advertising the idea that the initiative minimizes the risk of eminent domain being used on family farms to be used for natural resource protection, even though that virtually never happens.

Local government organizations are gathering signatures for a more modest measure that would prohibit the use of eminent domain to obtain owner-occupied houses for economic development purposes. The locals are also arguing that the Jarvis initiative would threaten virtually all future water projects because of the way eminent domain would be restricted.

But the key to this election may not be the ballot measures themselves. The key may be the timing of the election.

The Jarvis initiative would obviously do much better during the June low-turnout election, when conservative voters are likely to have more sway. The local government alternative would probably do better in November, when there will be a higher and presumably more liberal turnout, In 2004, 57% of eligible voters turned out in November, compared with only 30% for the March primary. The June turnout this year will likely be comparable to the March turnout last time.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are likely to keep pounding away at climate change in the presidential election – which could affect the way the state implements AB 32, the greenhouse-gas emissions reduction law. An environmentalist-backed implementation bill affecting land use – SB 375 (Steinberg) – almost passed the Legislature last August. If climate change maintains a high profile because of the presidential election, then the Legislature may be forced politically to adopt an aggressive implementation bill. With the entire Assembly and half the Senate up for grabs on the presidential ballot, Democrats in particular may have to tow the environmentalist line.

Meanwhile, the local ballots will be a mixed bag for land use as always. The biggest issue on any local ballot in February will be a SOAR-type initiative in Stanislaus County, along with a countermeasure placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors.

Measure E, as the citizen initiative is known, mimics the famous SOAR initiative in Ventura County by requiring voter approval for any rezoning of land in the unincorporated area from agriculture or open space to residential. The county alternative will create a general plan review committee to review and shore up agricultural land policies among other things.

SOAR-type initiatives have not traveled well in the past. Though vastly popular in Ventura County (the county measure and most of its city counterparts received 65-70% of the vote when they were on the ballot), they have been defeated in similar counties such as Sonoma and San Luis Obispo (see CP&DR Insight, December 2000). Stanislaus is more politically conservative than any of these other counties – though, like Ventura, it has a long history of restraining urban development in order to preserve farmland. A high February turnout might help the initiative.

Meanwhile, liberal Napa County will likely vote on two significant land use initiatives in June, including one that will extend Measure J, the 1990 measure that paved the way for SOAR in the first place.

Like the SOAR measures and Stanislaus County’s proposed Measure E, Measure J requires a countywide vote to rezone agricultural property in the unincorporated area for urban uses. It was the 1995 California Supreme Court ruling in De Vita v. County of Napa, which upheld Measure J, that opened the door to the SOAR initiatives in Ventura County and elsewhere. Measure J currently sunsets in 2020, but the June initiative would extend it for 50 years.

So there you have it: prohibitions on eminent domain and aggressive regulation on land use, all in the same year. It is an entirely plausible outcome in the Year of Election.