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Growth Results Mixed in November Balloting; Ventura Slow-Growthers Succeed, But Others Fail

In one of the most active election days of the decade for planning and development issues, pro-growth and slow-growth forces battled almost to a tie on local ballots around the state in November. Slow-growthers won some high-profile victories, most notably a near-sweep in passing a highly publicized series of urban growth boundaries in Ventura County. However, they lost other key races in San Diego and El Dorado counties. And - perhaps most surprising - most measures to allow or promote growth passed easily throughout the state.

More than anything else, the November election was characterized by a resurgence of ballot activity on planning and development issues. The election saw more than 50 different measures appear on local ballots, dealing with more than 40 different issues. Even more surprising was the fact that voters appeared willing to cast "yes" ballots on most issues, no matter where they promoted or constrained growth. Despite some high-profile victories by slow-growthers - most notably a highly publicized near-sweep on urban growth boundaries in Ventura County - slow-growth forces carried the day on only 18 of 35 sharply defined issues around the state (51.4%), while pro-growth forces won on the other 17 issues (48.6%). Among other things, slow-growthers won several Bay Area races but lost a proposed downzoning of rural land in San Diego County. Slow-growth forces appeared to lose in always-contentious El Dorado County, where four measures appeared on the ballot. And pro-growth forces won in several areas, including two races in the City of San Diego where voters approved large new residential subdivisions.

Overall slow-growthers won 16 of 23 slow-growth measures, while pro-growthers won 10 or 12 pro-growth measures. Other ballot activity included 12 ballot measures in 7 different locations on transportation and rail transit - all but one in the Bay Area - as well as one city incorporation and one ballot measure that could not be defined by CP&DR as either pro- or slow-growth.

Despite the high volume of ballot measures, this November's election was in many ways a typical election-year ballot - similar to the presidential election year of 1996, when pro- and slow-growthers split 40 ballot measures evenly down the middle. (CP&DR, December 1997.) By contrast, the November 1997 ballot - an off-year election - saw only 12 growth measures on the ballot, with slow-growthers winning 9 of them. (CP&DR, December 1996.) The big question arising from this year's election results is whether it portends continued citizen unrest about growth. Past experience suggests that ballot measures associated with growth tend to follow closely behind periods of strong economic growth. So even if the economy begins to slow down in the next year or two, it may well be that ballot measures will continue to increase in 1999 and 2000.

It is questionable, however, whether these initiatives will expand to new geographical areas, as they did in the 1980s. Virtually all of this year's measures were concentrated in the Bay Area, Ventura County, San Diego County, and El Dorado County - all areas where contentious growth issues have spilled over onto the ballot before. The Slow-Growth Battlegrounds: Ventura and San Diego Counties Though this year's election results were decidedly mixed, slow-growthers appeared victorious because of the enormous publicity given to the successful urban growth boundary elections in Ventura County. However, the so-called Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative in San Diego County - which also received a great deal of publicity - went down to defeat, and voters in several other situations in San Diego voted in favor of new growth.

The Ventura County effort received national publicity because it represented an unprecedented attempt to use the ballot to shape a regional land-use policy affecting both an entire county and virtually all its cities. It was expansion of slow-growthers' successful ballot initiative campaign in the City of Ventura in 1995 - but it represented a more sophisticated approach, both politically and in policy terms. Taking not one but two pages from the Bay Area slow-growth experience, the so-called SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) campaigners placed a Napa-style initiative on the countywide ballot requiring voter approval for changing the zoning on agricultural and open space land, and combined that effort with Greenbelt Alliance-style urban growth boundaries in seven of the county's 10 cities. Because they made a signature-gathering error, the SOAR campaign's measures were knocked off the ballot in all of the cities after the signatures had been submitted. This forced the SOAR leaders to negotiate with each city over proposed urban growth boundaries in order to persuade the city council to place the measure on the ballot in that city.

While the SOAR leaders were forced to make a few compromises in order to win city council support, this strategy actually worked to their benefit by defusing opposition in most cities. The only exception was Moorpark, a fast-growing city that serves as a bedroom community for job centers in the San Fernando Valley and Thousand Oaks. In Moorpark, where a 3,200-home development proposed by Messenger Co. is pending with city council support, SOAR leaders were unable to place their urban-growth boundary measure on the ballot, though a city-sponsored alternative did appear on the ballot and did pass. SOAR leaders are now planning a January special election on the Messenger project as well as a later urban growth boundary election as well.

Overall, Measure B, the countywide SOAR initiative, passed with 63% of the vote. The city urban growth boundaries passed in virtually all of the county's largest cities, including Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, and Camarillo, with 65% to 70% of the vote. SOAR failed in the agricultural community of Santa Paula. Measure A, a county-sponsored alternative to SOAR, also passed - not surprising, considering that SOAR leaders said it did not conflict with their measure and several county supervisors also supported SOAR. Measure A calls for a temporary moratorium on converting agricultural land to urban use while the county studies long-term alternatives.

The Ventura County effort appears to have won in part because of peculiar political circumstances - some inherent to the county and others cleverly devised by the SOAR backers. Remarkably, pro-SOAR forces managed to match the opponents (led by landowners and homebuilders) almost dollar-for-dollar in fundraising. Also, because Ventura County is not a discrete television market, the campaign was waged mostly through mailers - a distinct advantage for the pro-SOAR forces. Finally, because longstanding local policy has channeled almost all development into the cities and left greenbelts around the cities, most local voters apparently felt they could protect land close to their homes.

This experience stands in contrast to San Diego County, where voters were asked to approve radical downzoning of rural land far from their homes. Proposition B, the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative, would have downzoned 600,000 acres in eastern San Diego County from 4- and 8-acre lots to 40- and 80-acre lots. Outgunned by television advertising, Proposition B was defeated decisively, receiving only about 40% of the vote. Indeed, the San Diego County failure seemed to be the mirror image of the Ventura County success. Because it is a discrete television market, developers could raise big money and use television advertising to oppose the measure; and because development has not been channeled into specific areas, most people - unlike in Ventura County - do not live near the rural areas affected.

Interestingly, San Diego County had the most active ballot in the state, with some 10 local growth-related measures. In general, it would appear that pro-growth forces came out ahead. In the City of San Diego, voters approved a huge redevelopment plan revolving around a new baseball stadium as well as two new housing tracts in emerging areas of the city. Results from suburban cities were mixed, with slow-growth forces winning some and pro-growth forces winning others.

 

El Dorado County

Four growth-related measures were on the ballot in El Dorado County, where development continues to be a contentious issue. (See CP&DR, July 1998). Only one, Measure Y, supported by environmentalists, passed. But the other measures reflected some of the divisions over growth in the area, which is both a booming suburb of Sacramento and home to struggling timber and mining industries. The most unusual measure was Measure W, which would have limited the number of commercial rafters on the American River. The measure was considered a slap in the face of commercial rafting companies. Some of the rafting companies are aligned with environmental groups and causes. The measure would have cut the number of commercial users on the river in half. A ballot argument for the measure revealed the underlying issue: In El Dorado County, there are limits on traffic, ranching, building, logging and other businesses in order to protect our resources," the argument said. "We should not turn our backs on the American River. Protecting our environment should not be left to the discretion of the people who profit from our environment."

Opponents of the measure, which included two county supervisors and a supervisor-elect, said in their ballot arguments that Measure W's supporters"[W]ant to injure commercial rafting because they disagree with the politics of some rafting business owners." Nate Rangel, a rafting business owner in Coloma, said that animosity towards rafting companies dates back to the 1970s, when they fought against a series of proposed dams. Measure Y, known as the Control Traffic Initiative, was a stripped down version of Measure K, which narrowly lost in November 1996.

The new measure makes five changes to the county's general plan, and will prevent approval of tentative subdivision maps if traffic increases to specified levels. It also requires voters to approve the use of county tax revenues to enlarge roads for new development. Opponents charged that the measure would cancel or delay needed traffic improvements, and was a "job killer." But the opposing measure, Measure Z - placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors - failed by a huge margin. Rangel said he thought that Measure Z's backers lost credibility because most of them also supported Measure W, the anti-rafting measure.

Measure V, the fourth measure, was also placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors. The measure is related to continued wrangling over the county's general plan, which anticipates the county's population to be 260,000 by the year 2015. But the general plan also said that theoretically the county's growth could be 375,000 by that year. Proponents said this was a way to end that debate. Opponents in the environmental community asked voters to send a message that "260,000 people is way to much." It also went down to defeat.

 

Other Important Races

Most of the other important contests in the state came in the Bay Area, where slow-growth forces generally prevailed. Here are some highlights: o Seven different rail and transportation issues appeared on local ballots. In Los Angeles County, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure sponsored by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to halt construction of the Los Angeles subway system once its current phase to the San Fernando Valley has been completed. The measure was opposed by political leaders in East Los Angeles, the next area scheduled for construction.

In Sonoma and Marin counties, voters approved rail-oriented transportation system plans - but voted down sales-tax increases to actually build the system. Four Bay Area cities approved the idea of rail transit on the Bay Bridge.

Greenbelt Alliance continued its city-by-city campaign to impose urban growth boundaries, winning in all three cities that were targeted - Cotati and Petaluma in Sonoma County and Milpitas in Santa Clara County. A similar measure to protect agricultural land between Petaluma and the Marin County line also passed.

In the Orange County city of Irvine, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal for a mixed-use development plan for the El Toro Marine Air Base which does not include a commercial airport. Business leaders in the county support the airport and engineered a previous ballot measure to change the county general plan to accommodate it. Political leaders in southern Orange County have opposed the airport, and Irvine has sought to annex the property in order to block the airport.

Voters made Oakley, in eastern Contra Costa County, only the third city to incorporate since the passage of the so-called "revenue neutrality" bill in 1992, which made it more difficult for cities to incorporate. Oakley is located on a fast-growing corridor where many communities are taking action to shape or restrict development (CP&DR Local Watch, October 1998).