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Land-Use Initiatives Fill Ballots

The November 7 election is shaping up as a potential landmark in ballot-box planning in California. Voters are scheduled to decide an even 50 local ballot measures, the most since the November 1990 election. Although ballot measures are concentrated in the Bay Area and along the Southern California coast, the collection of cities and counties where land-use measures will appear is as diverse as California itself. Lassen County voters will consider a mountain resort and subdivision. Monterey County will decide a specific plan amendment to allow the Pebble Beach Company to build a golf course, hotel and worker housing. Voters in the desert town of Yucaipa face a referendum on a power center. No fewer than eight separate general plan amendments confront the electorate in the northern San Diego suburb of Escondido. All this ballot-box planning is a reaction to the lack of good land-use planning, said Anthony Lettieri, president of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. Representatives amend adopted plans too often, and fiscal considerations become foremost, he said. Thus, people demand to vote on further changes. Like many professional planners, Lettieri worries about the consequences of land-use decisions made in the election booth. The APA would rather see a comprehensive planning process with extensive public involvement. "It becomes a sales game rather than a real, true look at what our communities should be," Lettieri said. But AnnaLis Dalrymple of the Greenbelt Alliance, which backs two major Bay Area growth-control initiatives this fall, said the movement is about "democratizing land use." She said people in Sonoma County, where the Alliance supports an initiative to freeze most rural area general plan designations, care about the general plan's integrity. "I just know that people are interested and want to weigh in on that. They don't feel like they have as much say as they would like," Dalrymple said. This year's collection of ballot measures covers just about all the bases. Among the measures on this fall's ballot: o Large-scale growth controls, such as the Save Open space and Agricultural Resources initiatives in San Luis Obispo County and Paso Robles. The measures require voter approval before any land designated agricultural, open space, rural or rural residential can be rezoned for more intensive uses. The initiatives are similar to the SOAR measures approved by voters in Ventura County and six of its cities since 1995. o Project-specific initiatives, such as a developer-backed measure to alter Sacramento County's urban services limit to allow a 3,000-lot subdivision near Rancho Murrieta. o Advisory measures, including the Lassen County initiative and a San Francisco "declaration of policy" that counters a major tourism proposal for Pier 45. The latter, placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors, calls for Pier 45 to be developed as a nonprofit, educational, public facility related to maritime activities. o A charter amendment in San Marcos that would require zoning to match the general plan. o Follow-ups to previous ballot measures, such as a proposal that would allow the City of Ventura to build a sports park on cropland. o Housing caps, such as an initiative to reduce building permits by half in Tracy, where a similar measure barely failed in March. o A development agreement in Lathrop that would allow a developer to build 8,500 homes before pursuing the theme parks that it had promised to build first. o A plan to purchase open space in fast-growing Placer County. Voters will decide on a quarter-cent sales tax and an advisory measure (which becomes moot if the sales tax fails) that allows them to earmark the estimated $8.3 million in new revenue for the Placer Legacy Open Space and Agricultural Conservation Program. o The latest CAPP (Citizens Alliance for Public Planning) initiatives, this time in Danville and Clayton. The measures would require voter approval for developments of at least 10 homes. Similar measures failed one year ago in San Ramon, Pleasanton and Livermore. Bay Area Growth Controls Two of the most closely watched contests this fall regard countywide measures in Sonoma and Alameda counties. In Sonoma County, a coalition of environmental groups support the Rural Heritage Initiative, which would freeze existing land uses and building rights in unincorporated rural areas for 30 years. Nearly all changes to rural land designations, which cover about 80% of the county, would require voter approval. Dalrymple, North Bay field representative of the Greenbelt Alliance, said initiative backers are only reinforcing an existing approach to growth. Seven of Sonoma County's nine cities have voter-approved urban growth boundaries (an eighth is on the ballot this November) and the county's general plan steers development to existing urban areas. But, she complained, the county general plan can be amended for particular projects on any Tuesday with only three votes on the Board of Supervisors. "What we are working at doing is preserving the plan that has worked so well," she said. "We're not saying we don't need housing. What we're about is where we grow and how we grow." Backers of the Rural Heritage Initiative used Napa County's Measure J from 1990 as a model. That landmark initiative, which withstood review by the State Supreme Court, was a general plan amendment that reaffirmed agricultural land-use designations throughout Napa County for 30 years and required a vote to change those designations. But Tim Smith, a three-term Sonoma County supervisor, called the Rural Heritage Initiative unnecessary and poorly written. Since 1978, the Board of Supervisors has closely followed the general plan that is so popular with Rural Heritage Initiative advocates, he said. The county has even created its own style of sprawl-halting urban growth boundaries by freezing zoning next to cities' existing urban growth boundaries, he added. "It [the Rural Heritage Initiative] is assuming that those of us who have kids are raising a bunch of blithering idiots who can't take care of the land like we have," Smith said. "I think there's a certain arrogance to it." In Alameda County the Sierra Club qualified an initiative for the election, only to have the Board of Supervisors place a competing measure on the ballot. The Sierra Club initiative would draw a tight urban growth boundary around communities in eastern Alameda County's Tri-Valley area and near Castro Valley. The Sierra Club initiative would block development in North Livermore, where city and county planners are working on a proposal for 12,500 new homes in exchange for protecting 8,000 acres of farmland and open space (see CP&DR Local Watch, June 2000). The alternative, called the "Vision 2010" measure, would draw a larger urban growth boundary that allows North Livermore and other potential developments to go forward. Dick Schneider, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter, said that getting a competing measure on the ballot is a developers' tactic. But Valerie Raymond, a former Alameda County supervisor and leader of the Vision 2010 effort, said the group announced its intentions for a ballot measure with the release of its vision report in October of 1999, before the Sierra Club began circulating petitions. The Vision 2010 measure resulted from a year-long process that involved many interested parties in the Tri-Valley area. The Alameda County general plan is composed of four area plans. The Sierra Club initiative would amend the plans for the east county and the Castro Valley areas. However, the large majority of Alameda County voters lives in a heavily urbanized strip of the west county that stretches from Berkeley to Fremont. "We need to explain why this is of interest to them," Schneider conceded. "People on the west side have an interest in further automobile-dependant suburban development." But Raymond said the east county communities of Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, which have permitted large — and growing — business parks, must provide housing. "It seems to me if you are going to invite people to work in your community, you have a responsibility to at least provide an opportunity for them to live there," Raymond said. Raymond, an environmental vote while on the Board of Supervisors during the late '70s, urged the Sierra Club to look at the bigger picture. "Where will growth go if it doesn't go here? I couldn't say in good conscious that it makes more sense to build this in the Central Valley than in North Livermore," she said. But the Sierra Club's Schneider said the emphasis should be on redeveloping the urban west county, not on further suburban development of pastures and canyons to the east. Last-Minute Additions An initiative in San Clemente is likely the last to make the ballot — after earlier getting blocked. On September 18, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling that prevented the Residential Building Permit Moratorium Initiative from appearing on the ballot. In August, Orange County Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann ruled that the initiative was illegal. Proponents appealed to the Fourth District, which did not decide on the initiative's merits. The court merely ordered the initiative to appear on the ballot, even though the county's election deadline passed five weeks earlier. "Cosmetic imperfections, intemperate choice of language, or even tension between the proposed initiative and other laws is not enough to justify a court taking away the people's right to vote on a proposed measure," Presiding Justice Davis Sills wrote in an unpublished opinion. "Given the complexity of the issues involved and the short time within which to act, the Superior Court wrongly attempted to determine the validity of the proposed measure before the election." The initiative would bar most housing construction until the city built a major north-south thoroughfare. Currently, the perpetually clogged I-5 is the major north-south route in San Clemente. Proponents want to halt construction of three already-approved projects that would add more than 5,000 new homes to the coastal city until a new boulevard is built. Whether the measure could apply to the already-approved developments is unclear. City officials and developers say the initiative is both illegal and unnecessary. They contend the developer-funded road system will be able to handle increased traffic. Another late addition to the ballot was San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's alternative to an initiative aimed at slowing office development. Brown's alternative became public only days before the mid-August ballot deadline. Known as "Daughter of Proposition M," the 1986 measure that capped new office construction at 950,000 square feet annually, the initiative would suspend office development in the Bayview-Hunters Point District and parts of the South of Market (SoMa) and northeast Mission districts. It would prohibit new offices in other parts of the SoMa and Mission districts, and would limit the size of projects in some other areas. Brown contends the initiative would harm economic growth. His alternative would allow some first-year exemptions to the 950,000-square-foot limit, impose a two-year moratorium on office development only in the Mission and Potrero Hill districts, and double development fees. At the heart of the fight are dot-com offices. They have moved into lower-class districts, such as Bayview-Hunters Point and the Mission — displacing mom-and-pop businesses and poor residents, and helping gentrify some of the city's roughest neighborhoods. As Promised, More Elections Elsewhere, voters are dealing with the effects of earlier growth-control measures. Two years ago, Escondido voters backed Proposition S, which requires voter approval of general plan amendments. This result is eight separate ballot measures this November. Four of them would allow industrial developments of 3- to 6-acres apiece on what is now residential land, and four others would increase residential zoning density for certain housing projects. Escondido Mayor Laurie Holt Pfeiler said people voted for Proposition S to gain a louder voice in the growth debate. But she is concerned that the initiative hampers officials' ability to plan, especially when a developer might need to wait 18 months or longer for an election. "It takes away the ability of the local elected officials to make the decisions for the community. I don't think the public has the time to understand the subtleties and all of the details of a general plan amendment," Holt Pfeiler said. But Proposition S proponents counter that Escondido's initiative does not hurt planning because only amendments to an adopted general plan require a voter approval. If officials follow the plan, there is no need for an election. Roger Caves, coordinator and professor of the graduate city planning program at San Diego State University, said ballot box approaches such as Escondido's are not going away any time soon. "Part of it is people wanting to participate in the democratic process," Caves said. "Others are frustrated. They see ‘the way it was' going by the wayside. Part of it is people's lack of trust in their public officials." Contacts: AnnaLis Dalrymple, Greenbelt Alliance, (707) 575-3661. Tim Smith, Sonoma County supervisor, (707) 565-2241. Dick Schneider, San Francisco Bay Chapter, Sierra Club, (510) 482-1553. Valerie Raymond, Tri-Valley Vision 2010, (925) 447-4027. Lori Holt Pfeiler, Escondido mayor, (760) 839-4638. Anthony Lettieri, California Chapter, American Planning Association, (619) 238-4241. Roger Caves, San Diego State University, (619) 594-6472.
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