The process of initiative and referendum is California's most peculiar institution. Other states rely on their legislators or other elected officials to hash out controversial public issues in lengthy, complicated and subtle debates. But Californians prefer the blunt instrument of the ballot box — a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from voters.
We all know this is true at the state level, where voters are confronted on each ballot with a bewildering array of initiatives and bond issues. But it is also true on local ballots — and it is very specifically true about local land-use issues. Nowhere else in the nation do citizens flock to the election booth to vote on local planning and development issues as they do in California.
In other states with easy access to the ballot — such as Washington and Colorado — no more than a handful of local land-use ballot measures has ever appeared. But California is different — vastly different. Ever since the California Supreme Court opened up the ballot to general plan amendments and zone changes 20 years ago, citizens — as well as developers and elected officials — have engaged in "ballot-box zoning" more frequently than anyone else in America.
Using a database compiled over the years by CP&DR, an analysis of land-use ballot measures shows that there have been 660 measures on local ballots throughout the state since 1986. And there probably have been more because CP&DR has focused on covering measures on major primary and general election ballots, rather than on spring municipal ballots, which can be difficult to track.
And what do voters want? Here's a summary:
o Over the entire 15-year period, voters chose the slow-growth position 57% of the time.
o Pro-growth positions are more likely to win during recession periods than during periods of prosperity.
o Urban growth boundaries are becoming increasingly common — and exceptionally popular. Of 37 UGBs we counted on local ballots, 33 have appeared since 1995 — and so far only one has ever failed. (Eleven will appear on the November ballot.)
o Perhaps most important, ballot-box zoning is still largely a coastal phenomenon in California. Ballot measures appear far more often in coastal areas than in inland areas — especially in coastal Southern California, and the East Bay and South Bay in Northern California. The UGB activity is even more concentrated around only three counties: Sonoma, Alameda and Ventura.
Population Growth Equals Ballot Box Zoning
Most of the ballot activity in the last 15 years has occurred in eight counties: the four Southern California coastal counties (Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego), and the four counties that make up the East Bay and the South Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area (Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara).
These eight counties have seen 365 land-use ballot measures since 1986, or about 55% of the statewide total. During this same period, these eight counties grew in population by about 4 million people, or 53% of the statewide total.
Some inland counties also added large population numbers since 1986, including Riverside, San Bernardino, Sacramento and Fresno. But they did not have nearly as many ballot measures. The undeniable conclusion is that land-use ballot measures are deeply entrenched as a policy tool in California's coastal areas — but not in the inland areas — and they occur most frequently in those coastal areas with the greatest numerical increase in population growth.
By the way, that 57% pass rate over 15 years holds fairly consistently across California's regions; it's 59% in the Bay Area, 58% in the five-county Southern California metro area, and 60% even in the Central Valley. The exception is San Diego, a county that has had more ballot measures than any other in the state (80) but also the lowest success rate for slow-growthers (48%).
In the City of San Diego, for example, voters have faced 14 pro-growth measures in the last 15 years and have passed eight of them — including the new Padres ballpark, an expansion of the convention center, a height limit exemption for Sea World, and the approval of several large-scale residential projects. As another example, Encinitas voters have faced four slow-growth proposals (two in 1988 and two in 1994) and rejected them all.
Economy Is A Factor
The analysis over time shows some interesting trends as well — and intersects with geography to a certain extent. A previous analysis of growth management in California by researchers Madelyn Glickfeld and Ned Levine found that growth management is sensitive to the economy — that is, slow-growth activity is likely in response to good times (often lagging somewhat behind the actual economic cycle). The CP&DR analysis shows the same thing.
Ballot measures spiked in 1990, fell to almost nothing in the years from 1993 through 1995, and have strongly rebounded since then. With almost 70 measures overall (and 50 on the November ballot alone), 2000 will be the most active year for ballot-box zoning in California in a decade.
Election results are tied to the economy as well. As the accompanying chart reveals, the slow-growth side beat the pro-growth side overall every year from 1986 to 1993, no matter how many measures were on the ballot. The pro-growth side won in the bleak economic year of 1994, and it was neck-and-neck until 1998, when the slow-growth forces emerged victorious again. This year, curiously, the pro-growthers won the March ballot, but the huge November ballot could well see a reversion to the previous trend.
When you slice the data over time and by region, it turns out that regional differences become a bit stronger. In the active period of the late ‘80s, when slow-growth measures first migrated to Southern California, the slow-growthers won all over the state. In the recession period of 1991-1995, the slow-growthers still won in most places — but they lost in San Diego, and their margin of victory in the Bay Area was so slim that the statewide slow-growth pass rate tanked. (Interestingly, the pass rate for slow-growth measures during this period was 53% in metropolitan Los Angeles, compared with only 43% in the Bay Area.)
From 1996 through the March election, pro-growthers actually prevailed on balance in L.A. and San Diego; however, there was far more ballot activity in the Bay Area, where slow-growthers did well. During the recession, the five-county L.A. area and the Bay Area each saw about 40 ballot measures. During the late '90s the L.A. number stayed the same, but the Bay Area number grew by 50%, to about 60 measures.
During the last five years, we have also seen ballot measures migrate inland somewhat in both Northern and Southern California. During the early ‘90s, ballot activity in the Bay Area was highly concentrated in San Francisco, Santa Mateo, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties. More recently, we've seen more activity in Sonoma County, in the commuter portions of the Central Valley, and in the highly contentious foothill county of El Dorado. In Southern California, measures moved outward as well, from L.A. and Orange counties to Ventura County and San Bernardino County.
Growth Boundaries Usually Win
Ventura County ballot activity is up, of course, because the county has become home to the "SOAR movement" — an approach that imposes or reaffirms local urban growth boundaries that cannot be changed without a vote. And the SOAR/Urban Growth Boundary movement represents a fast-growing and popular approach to ballot-box zoning. According to CP&DR's figures, 37 such measures have appeared on local ballots around the state since 1986. Only four of those measures appeared prior to the City of Ventura SOAR election in November of 1995. All the rest have appeared since then — including 11 on the ballot in November of 2000.
The numbers suggest two important points about UGB/SOAR-style measures. First, they are extremely popular. Of the 25 measures that appeared from 1990 through March of 2000, only one failed — the SOAR proposal in Santa Paula in 1998. Secondly, voter-controlled growth boundaries are even more geographically compressed than land-use ballot measures as a whole. Twenty of the 37 measures have appeared in just two counties — Ventura and Sonoma — which are the only counties in the state that have fully embraced the idea that a voter UGB must be in place in every city and in the county as well. Six more have appeared in Alameda County. Although UGBs do appear to be moving to smaller communities, these are mostly along the coast. The only non-coastal locations where UGBs have been on the ballot are along the Interstate 80 corridor leading from the East Bay to Sacramento.
The next recession might slow things down, but it's not likely to reverse the long-term trend toward more and more ballot-box zoning in California. There is little question that population growth will move inland in the next few years. Recent ballot action in such places as El Dorado County, Tracy and Modesto suggest that some fast-growing inland areas are beginning to catch ballot-box fever. But the culture gap between the coast and inland regions remains strong in California. Thus, ballot-box zoning may remain mostly a coastal phenomenon in the years ahead.
For the complete ballot measure analysis, please see our website at www.cp-dr.com