Voters in two small towns rejected development during special elections in April. Voters in the San Gabriel Valley city of Sierra Madre approved a referendum that requires projects of a certain size in downtown to go before voters. Meanwhile, voters in the Solano County city of Dixon rejected a proposed horse track and entertainment facility.

Both elections were close, and the land use battles in both cities appear far from over. The balloting may provide cautionary tales for planners, as both elections occurred after lengthy planning processes.


Downtown Sierra Madre

More than two years ago, city officials began work on plans for the city's 30-acre downtown core. A city of 10,000 people in the foothills north of the 210 freeway, Sierra Madre has a healthy high-end housing market. However, the quaint downtown has been losing businesses and some key properties are vacant.

The city and RBF Consultants began work on a specific plan that would maintain the community character, and encourage investment in housing and mixed-use buildings downtown, explained Kurt Christiansen, the city's former community developer director, who now works for Yorba Linda. Sierra Madre officials also wanted to create design guidelines for downtown.

City officials and RBF did extensive public outreach and education. The city mailed information to every household, put up posters, and placed full-page newspaper advertisements. They organized an eight-week "understanding downtowns" educational series. There were tours of five nearby downtowns, youth activities and ultimately a design charrette, according to Suzanne Rynne, a planner for RBF. This all led to the writing of a downtown vision plan.

But the plan became contentious. Opponents argued that the city was trying to entice high-density, high-rise and big-box development that would ruin the charming, stoplight-free downtown. Christiansen responded that Sierra Madre's demographics do not support high rises or national retailers. But two proposals galvanized the opposition: A plan to redevelop Howie's Market with a mixed-use project containing 72 residential units, and a 55-unit skilled nursing development. Last year, two of the strongest opponents to the city's downtown planning won election to the City Council.

Not surprisingly, a slow-growth initiative emerged. Measure V limits projects in the downtown core to 2 stories and 30 feet in height, and to 13 residential units per acre (18 with a density bonus). Exceeding the limits will require voter approval. On April 17, the measure passed by a tally of 1,796 to 1,703, suggesting just how closely divided the city is.

The campaign over Measure V was nasty, with websites and blogs on either side of the issue launching vicious attacks.

"It was really filthy, and that's a shame," said former Mayor Glenn Lambdin, an initiative opponent. "There were a lot of personal attacks and mean stuff. This was absolutely the dirtiest campaign that I've ever seen."

Christiansen, a California Chapter, American Planning Association vice president who has continued to follow Sierra Madre, said the initiative was an overreaction to modest efforts to bring life to downtown, generate a tax revenue and meet the city's fair-share of affordable housing.

"This measure really has divided the town to the point where it's going to be hard to heal the wounds," said Christiansen, noting that City Manager John Gillison recently left after less than two years on the job.

What Measure V means for downtown is unclear. Lambdin predicted that downtown would be "frozen in time."

Councilman Kurt Zimmerman, a Measure V supporter, told the Pasadena Star-News that the initiative's passage bolstered the democratic process. The election results, he told the newspaper, "will serve to empower and inspire other communities that are fighting to preserve their character and heritage."

What happens with the mixed-use and skilled nursing projects also is unclear. City officials declared the project applications complete prior to the election and say the initiative cannot apply. But some Measure V supporters have argued that the initiative would apply. Litigation is likely either way.


Dixon Downs

While Sierra Madre residents were voting more on the theoretical, Dixon voters were deciding a very specific project: Magna Entertainment's plan for a major horse racing track and entertainment center, plus 1 million square feet of hotel, entertainment, retail and office development. The City Council approved the project last fall, but opponents placed on the ballot referendums of the general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, rezoning and development agreement approved by the city.

In an April 17 election with a 66% turnout, voters rejected all four City Council actions by 53% to 47%.

"We kind of think we saved Dixon from a bad thing," said Gail Preston, an organizer of Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth, which backed the referendums.

The City Council approved Dixon Downs after a six-year planning process (see CP&DR Local Watch, March 2007). Backers said the project would increase Dixon's existing base of 5,300 jobs by about 50%, provide tax revenue, encourage growth in an undeveloped part of town, and put the city's name on the map.

Magna, a Canadian company that owns Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows and Santa Anita, poured more than half a million dollars into the campaign. The company paid for numerous mailers, advertising and a community barbecue. On election day, the company bused in employees from Bay Meadows and Golden Gate for rallies.

In the months prior to the election, Magna vowed to open the horse track's infield for use as a community park, to limit non-racing events such as concerts, and to sign an agreement prohibiting slot machines or casino-style gambling.

Opponents, however, were skeptical of the campaign spending and promises. They noted, for example, that Magna has been a leading lobbyist at the state Capitol for legislative changes that would permit slot machines at horse tracks.

"The last couple of weeks of the campaign, people got to see what happens when someone comes into town with a lot of money," Preston said. "There was a lot of talk about thousands of jobs, but in reality it was only 300 jobs. The rest of the jobs come with the horse and leave with the horse."

As in Sierra Madre, the future remains uncertain in Dixon. Magna still owns 260 acres in a 640-acre specific plan area zoned for highway commercial, industrial and office development. The company's initial reaction to the election was that it would take a month to re-evaluate and consider repackaging the project.

Preston warned against trying again. "The people would go crazy if that thing came back," he said.

Sierra Madre election material:
Pro Sierra Madre Measure V:
Anti Sierra Madre Measure V:
Dixon Downs project website:
Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth:
Dixon Downs campaign: