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Election Results Hold Surprises

Paul Shigley on
Dec 1, 2006

Voters who decided local land use ballot measures in November showed slow-growth tendencies. They also displayed more than a little unpredictability, suggesting that nothing in local land use politics is certain, or at least certain forever.

For example, voters in two Bay Area counties rejected “anti-sprawl” ballot measures aimed at protecting the region’s cherished hills and farmland. Voters in the perennially slow-growth City of Davis approved a 136,000-square-foot big-box store. Growth-control advocates in Newport Beach had their three-election winning streak snapped when voters rejected new restrictions. In a rare instance of county voters approving a specific project, the San Luis Obispo County electorate overwhelmingly backed a controversial retail and housing project that City of San Luis Obispo voters rejected 18 months earlier. Voters in the usually conservative San Joaquin Valley approved sales taxes for transportation, while liberal Marin County rejected a sales tax for commuter rail and a 70-mile-long bike path.

Overall, voters chose the slow-growth side in 26 of 42 classifiable local ballot measures. During the 2004 general election, the pro-growth side won 16 of 31 elections. Two years earlier, growth advocates won 19 of 32 ballot measures.

Without question, the biggest surprises in November were in the Bay Area, where the “Land Conservation Initiative” narrowly failed in Santa Clara County, and an extension of Solano County’s voter-approved “Orderly Growth Initiative” received only 47% of the vote. Proponents of the measures focused their message on saving rural areas and protecting agriculture. However, in both counties, farmers complained that they had not been consulted by proponents, and the farmers actively campaigned against the ballot measures.

The Solano County measure would have extended existing policies by 30 years until 2036. Those policies prohibit most development on land zoned for agriculture, watershed or open space, which adds up to most of the unincorporated area. Opponents of Measure J focused on farmers’ needs when campaigning in Dixon and Rio Vista, and on economic development when talking to voters in Vallejo and Benicia, campaign manager Amber Johnson said. The No on J campaign did not accept money from housing developers nor the endorsement of any elected official, according to Johnson.

“We made a concerted effort to stay away from development money. Not that we didn’t have their support, but we knew that would be the nail in our coffin,” Johnson said.

Third-generation Suisun Valley farmer Derrick Lum said Measure J proponents did not approach growers until the measure was already on the ballot. “They should have come to the table and asked us what we think about it,” he said.

Lum, who grows pears, beans and wheat, said he needs options to continue in the farming business. Orderly Growth Initiative policies prohibit processing plants on agriculture land, as well as “ag tourism,” which has helped growers in places such as Apple Hill in El Dorado County, Half Moon Bay and the Napa Valley, he said.

“I have to change my ag practice. It’s not the same as we’ve been doing for the last 30 years,” said Lum, who cited inexpensive imported food as a major competitor.

In Santa Clara County, 51% of voters said no to a measure intended to prevent development on about 400,000 acres of rural areas and hills. As in Solano County, opponents of the Santa Clara County initiative focused on farmers’ and landowners’ complaints that they had been left out of the initiative drafting process.

“A lot of the people looking at it realized there were a lot of disparate views,” said Beverley Bryant, executive director of the Southern Division of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, an initiative opponent. “It was not as straightforward as it was presented to be.”

Indeed, the initiative went on for nearly 20 pages, and descriptions of what exactly it would do varied. But the idea was to lock in — and in some instances tighten — existing regulations barring development in most unincorporated areas. Proponents, including Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club, argued that existing policies may be changed at any time with three votes by the Board of Supervisors — an argument that played well during Ventura County’s Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources campaigns of the late 1990s.

Opponents, meanwhile, said Measure A could harm housing affordability in Santa Clara County, where affordability is already at a premium. However, Bryant and other opponents were hard-pressed to say how the measure would drive up housing costs when the initiative would have prohibited only single-family homes on large parcels.

“There were some conflicting messages, some inaccurate information that went out and that may have affected the outcomes in Santa Clara and Solano counties,” Greenbelt spokeswoman Elizabeth Stampe told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Whether voters countywide accepted the housing affordability argument or not, voters in the Santa Clara County city of Cupertino clearly did not. In two referendums, they overwhelmingly rejected two housing proposals. The city approved both projects earlier this year. One rezoned a portion of Vallco Fashion Park to permit 134 condominiums atop new retail space. The second project involved the rezoning of a 26-acre former Hewlett Packard office site to allow 300 condominiums and 80 apartments for low-income senior citizens. Project opponents used yard signs referring to “Condotino” and said the developments would crowd the city’s desirable schools.

Cupertino Community Development Director Steve Piasecki said he was unsure what is next for the polarized city.

“It’s an interesting conundrum for the community. We’re stuck in the vice,” Piasecki said. “The state declares a crisis on housing, and the community says no.”

There is a perception that Cupertino is being overrun by condominiums when, in fact, the city of 54,000 people will see only about 1,000 new units over six years, Piasecki said. And while the community is unwilling to accept even those units, the regional fair-share housing process is likely to boost Cupertino’s future allocation, said Piasecki, who serves on an Association of Bay Area Governments’ committee working on the allocations.

“Multi-family residential on those two sites and just about anywhere in town is probably going to be on hiatus,” he said. “Why would (a developer) want to put up half a million or a million dollars for an entitlement process?”

In the college town of Davis, the vote on rezoning to permit a 136,000-square-foot Target store was not seen as a referendum on the city’s big-box regulations, which prohibit retail stores of more than 40,000 square feet. Rather, the election appears to be mostly about having a Target in town, rather than six miles away in Woodland. In the end, 51.5% of voters backed the proposed store. The outcome would likely have been different if the proposed big box were a Wal-Mart.

In San Luis Obispo County, voters approved an initiative placed on the ballot by property owner Ernie Dalidio, who has been trying to develop his 130 acres near the Madonna Inn since the late 1980s. The city finally approved his plan for a 650,000-square-foot power center, a hotel and 60 housing units, but voters overturned the approval last year. Dalidio, whose property the city has never annexed, modified his plans a bit to include 200,000 square feet of office space, 530,000 square feet of retail and a permanent farmers market, in addition to the housing. He then took the plans directly to county voters, who approved the project nearly 2-to-1.

“A lot of people voted for it because they wanted some additional shopping,” said Michael Boswell, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who campaigned against the project. “I imagine other developers would take a good hard look at whether this (initiative) process is the way to go.”

What happens next with the Dalidio Ranch project, though, is unclear. The project needs an on-site wastewater treatment plant, which is proposed for a floodplain; thus, a Regional Water Quality Control Board permit is necessary. Furthermore, the project needs a freeway interchange. However, the initiative locks in the developer’s contribution to the interchange at $4 million plus 13 acres of land worth about $4 million. Yet the interchange is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $50 million and would be unnecessary if not for the Dalidio Ranch development.

Election results in Newport Beach suggest that growth-control proponents may have overreached. Newport Beach voters soundly rejected the “Greenlight II” initiative, which would have required voters to decide on any project that would “significantly increase traffic, density or intensity above the as-built condition of a neighborhood.” The measure was a follow-up to the Greenlight initiative, which requires a vote on certain projects exceeding general plan provisions. Since voters approved Greenlight in 2000, they have rejected an office tower in 2001 and a hotel in 2004.

But some original Greenlight supporters said the latest initiative was a no-growth measure that would force nearly any project to the ballot. Instead, voters approved a city-sponsored general plan amendment that permits increased housing development in exchange for fewer new offices.

A total of 12 local sales tax measures for transportation were on the ballot in November. Voters approved sales tax measures in Orange County, as well as in the San Joaquin Valley counties of Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Tulare. Sales tax plans lost in Amador, Kern, Merced, Santa Barbara and Stanislaus counties, and in the City of Grass Valley. A two-county sales tax for a commuter rail and bike path project in Marin and Sonoma counties also failed, although Sonoma County voters did back the measure. Voters in Nevada City approved a half-cent tax measure solely for the repair of roads.

The Orange County extension of an existing half-cent tax was probably the most widely watched measure because it took three tries for Orange County voters to muster majority support for the original tax. The extension required a two-thirds vote, and this time a unified front of nearly every public official backed the measure.

In Marin County, environmental groups divided over a proposed quarter-cent sales tax to fund a commuter rail service from Cloverdale in Sonoma County to Larkspur in Marin County, where commuters could pick up a ferry to San Francisco. Opponents said the system would serve mostly Sonoma County residents and its estimated daily ridership of about 5,000 people would provide little relief for Highway 101 congestion.