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Voters No Longer SOARing; Density Could Be the Next Ballot Fight

Election Day 1998 sure looked like a watershed for ballot-box zoning in California. That was the day that voters in Ventura County and five cities there passed the so-called SOAR (Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources) initiatives, which created an almost "air-tight" system of urban growth boundaries around the cities and agricultural preservation in unincorporated areas. In the months after that election, California began to look like "SOAR-land".

Reporters from around the country trooped through Ventura to interview the organizers of what appeared to be the cutting-edge of land-use policy nationally. These same organizers also played Johnny Appleseed around the state, advising other cities and counties on how to draft and campaign for their own SOAR-style initiatives. So it was a bit surprising on Election Day 2000 that the two most highly publicized "children of SOAR" �the San Luis Obispo County SOAR and the Rural Heritage Initiative in Sonoma County � went down to defeat. And what made it all the more perplexing was the fact that these high-profile defeats came as slow-growthers won most races (34 out of 55, or about 62% statewide). The only other high-profile countywide measure � urban growth boundaries in Alameda County � won.

But that occurred because the Sierra Club outspent the homebuilders in the campaign and because more individual members of the Sierra Club live in Alameda County than in any other county in the nation. In retrospect, these results all reveal how remarkable the 1998 Ventura SOAR campaign was � and, in particular, what a shrewd political move it was to place the countywide SOAR measure on the same ballots as the city SOARs. People are more likely to vote for � and, indeed, to work for � a growth restriction in their city than in their county. By tethering the county measure to the city measures, the SOAR proponents removed the biggest political obstacle to passage of the countywide measure � the perception that it is not pertinent to local residents. (Also, for a variety of complicated reasons, the Ventura County SOAR forces were not badly outspent by their opponents.)

In San Luis Obispo, the SOAR forces attempted the same strategy, but they managed to place the measure on only one city ballot � in conservative Paso Robles, where it failed. Even if proponents had hit all the cities, however, they still might not have succeeded. Unlike Ventura County, San Luis Obispo County has a large number of residents living in unincorporated areas. These folks are not only conservative by nature, but they also apparently feared more development in unincorporated areas that are already designated for suburban growth in the county's general plan. (The anti-SOAR campaign cleverly played on these fears.) In Sonoma County, where (like Ventura) most people live in medium-sized cities separated by greenbelts, prospects seemed good. In fact, Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area environmental group, had successfully passed growth boundaries in virtually all Sonoma County cities. But this fact actually harmed the Rural Heritage Initiative. Led by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, opponents argued that RHI left farmers out of the initiative-writing process and complained that the measure would hamper even minor, farm-related development projects. Plus, both opponents and supporters of Measure I claimed that a vote for their side was a vote for farms and parks.

Unlike Ventura, voters could not easily make the connection between growth boundaries in their cities and the countywide SOAR-style measure. So perhaps Ventura County is unique � not just in the way it looks and feels, but in the political makeup that passed SOAR in 1998. But the long-term lesson from the November 7 election may not come from the defeat of SOAR-style measures. It may instead be the growing number of initiatives requiring voter approval for major land-use changes inside those growth boundaries. A SOAR system presumably channels growth into existing urban areas and other nearby locations. And in some other parts of the state � especially Orange and San Diego counties � the trend is toward requiring elections on projects inside these urban areas rather than outside. For example, Escondido passed such a requirement in 1998. The result this time around was that Escondido voters were confronted with eight separate ballot measures dealing with increased densities and changes in zoning. In aggregate, all these proposals didn't add up to much.

The total amount of land involved in the eight measures combined was about 100 acres, or the same as the one override measure in the City of Ventura. Even so, all eight measures in Escondido failed. And more of these vote-on-density measures are on the way; the requirements for subsequent votes already exist in many other San Diego County cities and such requirements were extended in Solana Beach and imposed in Newport Beach on Election Day.

Will a vote requirement on increased densities in already urbanized areas be the real "son of SOAR?" It's entirely possible. As pressure to increase densities in Ventura County grows because of SOAR's geographical constraints, more development will be channeled into existing cities, and that is sure to displease some residents. The power to vote on density increases is an attractive and emotionally satisfying solution for many people. But is it a good idea? SOAR has its faults, but one of its strengths � from an urban planning perspective � is that is does not seek to permit voters to micromanage the land-use process. Rather, it places constraints on where growth can go and then challenges planners, developers, and elected officials to create better communities inside those boundaries. SOAR may not be good planning in and of itself, but it can serve as a tool to encourage better planning. Voting on increased densities inside the boundaries may not serve the same function. Our existing urban communities are necessarily dynamic, and in many cases important land is underused, thus increasing the pressure for more sprawl. As the Escondido votes show, density votes can lead to micro-management of what ought to be a thoughtful and logical planning process inside urban growth boundaries. And in this way, the SOAR approach does not foster good planning, it frustrates good planning.