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Voters Confront Land Use Measures

Construction activity may have declined dramatically, but the number of ballot measures seeking to slow or guide growth remains high. Voters across California will face close to 50 growth-related local ballot measures in November.

It's not unusual for the number of slow-growth measures to increase at the end of a real estate boom. Construction often continues and the real estate market dies, and slow-growth measures are often a reaction to construction rather than the market. In other words, slow-growth ballot measures are a lagging economic indicator of the real estate market. This November's total is down from the 78 measures on the November 2006 ballot, partly because California had two primaries this year.

If past trends prevail, the slow-growth camp may be in for a big day in November. Two years ago, the slow-growth side won 62% of measures classifiable as slow- or pro-growth. At the November 2004 election, the sides essentially split. During the November 2002 election, the pro-growth side carried the day 19-13. A study prepared in 2000 by CP&DR and Solimar Research Group found that twice a growth backlash in the form of ballot initiatives did not hit until the market had turned sour. California cities and counties may be seeing a repeat in 2008, although results were mixed during voting in the February and June primaries.

Planners remain uncomfortable with what some call "ballot box planning" and what others term "direct democracy."

"Measures that go on the ballot are often poorly written and confusing, and voters don't know what they are about," Vivian Kahn, of Oakland's Kahn Mortimer Associates, said during the recent California Chapter, American Planning Association conference. One of the APA's leading experts on the subject, Kahn urges planners to play the role of educators. Woodie Tescher, vice principal for PBS&J in Los Angeles, sounded a similar note during the same roundtable discussion. Ballot measures in some cities appear to be knee-jerk reactions to increased congestion and density in the vicinity of transit stations, he said. Planners need to explain to the community how these nodes of congestion actually provide cumulative benefits, Tescher contended.

A complete roundup of local ballot measure election results will be available on www.cp-dr.com on November 5. Here's a look at many of the big land use elections set for November 4.

Alameda County
The ballot in the City of Pleasanton contains competing measures the citizen initiative PP and the City Council alternative, Measure QQ. Measure PP would prohibit houses on slopes of at least 25% and within 100 vertical feet of a ridgeline, but it would exempt any project of 10 or fewer units. Measure PP also tightens the definition of a housing unit, which is important because Pleasanton has annual and ultimate housing caps approved previously by voters. The City Council's alternative would require the city to conduct a collaborative process to prepare a hillside and ridgeline protection ordinance.

The long-controversial issue of hillside development in Pleasanton flared last year when the city approved the 51-lot Oak Grove subdivision for houses of at least 6,000 square feet apiece. Although the project also includes a dedication of 500 acre of open space, opponents prepared a referendum that appeared headed toward the June ballot. A Superior Court judge blocked the referendum because of signature-gathering irregularities. However, the ruling may have had the unintended consequence of providing political support for Measure PP.

In Alameda and Contra Costa counties' East Bay Regional Park District, voters will decide on a $500 million bond to acquire parkland and develop facilities. On the Berkeley ballot is an initiative that would prohibit establishment of bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes a reaction to an unpopular proposal for a BRT lane on Telegraph Avenue.

Contra Costa County
Voters in the Town of Moraga face competing ballot measures concerning lightly developed hillsides and ridges. Measure K would expand an open space zoning district by 1,700 acres. Development would be limited to 10- or 20-acre parcels with severe grading restrictions. Measure J is backed by landowner and developer David Bruzzone. Cast as a development agreement, Measure J would protect 320 acres as permanent open space but would allow housing development on about 130 acres that Measure K seeks to preserve.

El Dorado County
Ten years ago, voters approved Measure Y, an initiative that sought to block development that did not fully mitigate its traffic impact. Measure Y sunsets this year. In November, voters will decide on a less-stringent, 10-year extension. The revised Measure Y would apply only to single-family subdivisions of at least five units, permit the Board of Supervisors on a four-fifths vote to craft exceptions, and allow spending of federal and state funds for roads serving new development. Although the 1998 Measure Y was divisive, there is no organized opposition to the 2008 version.

Los Angeles County
Three fiscal measures top the ballot, while voters in several cities will also consider proposals to limit growth.

Measure R is a half-cent sales tax that would generate an estimated $40 billion over 30 years for numerous transportation projects, including extensive rail and bus service expansions. Local officials are sharply divided over how the money should be spent, and the odds for the necessary two-thirds approval appear long.

Voters also will decide two gigantic school bonds. The Los Angeles Unified School District has proposed a $7 billion bond the largest local school bond in history to fund ongoing classroom expansion and upgrade projects. Measure Q needs a 55% majority to pass. In addition, the Los Angeles Community College District has proposed a $3.5 billion bond to expand and modernize its facilities. A 55% majority is also needed for passage of Measure J.

In Beverly Hills, opponents of a hotel and condominium project have qualified a referendum for the ballot. At issue is a plan approved in May to replace 217 rooms at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with a 170-room Waldorf Astoria and a conference center, construct up to 110 condominium units in two buildings of up to 18 stories, and provide 1,300 additional underground parking spaces. Officials estimate the project would generate $750 million for the city over 30 year. Opponents cite traffic as their primary concern.

Santa Monica voters will decide the Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), which would limit commercial development to a rolling five-year annual average of 75,000 square feet. In recent years, the city has permitted about twice that amount.

Redondo Beach is another city where voters face competing ballot measures. The Building a Better Redondo initiative (Measure DD) is an overt slow-growth measure that would require voters to decide on any "major change in allowable land use," any project of more than 25 residential units or 40,000 square feet of floor area, and any project with a density of more than 8.8 dwelling units per acre. The City Council-backed alternative (Measure EE) would permit voters to decide on rezoning of residential, park and open space lands, as well as any proposal to increase the height limit in the coastal zone. For years, Redondo Beach officials have sought to redevelop the waterfront and the site of a power plant, as well as Torrance Boulevard. Those efforts, however, have met with stiff resistance.

Marin and Sonoma counties
A quarter-cent sales tax to fund development and operation of a commuter train from Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the south is back. In 2006, the measure received more than two-thirds support in Sonoma County but failed because of lukewarm support in Marin County.

Also in Marin County is a referendum of the county's plan to construct public safety buildings of 83,000 and 7,500 square feet, respectively, on the east side of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Civic Center. Project opponents argue that Wright designated the area for cultural and educational activities, so the county should build facilities for the sheriff's office and emergency radio operations elsewhere.

Monterey County
A 25-year, half-cent sales tax for transportation returns. In June 2006, 57% of voters backed a tax, which requires two-thirds approval.

Nevada County
City of Grass Valley voters will decide on both the Managed Growth Initiative (Measure Z) and the Limited Growth Initiative (Measure Y). Put forth by slow-growth advocates, Measure Z would prohibit changes to the general plan's land use element without voter approval. The initiative could force a vote on several large development proposals that are inconsistent with the land use element.

Backed by Mayor Mark Johnson, Measure Y would place a cap on housing units until 2020 and require voter approval of boundary changes and annexations.

Orange County
Measure V in the City of San Clemente would prohibit rezoning or development of open space lands without voter approval. The measure follows on the heels of a February referendum vote blocking a condominium development on land now designated as open space, although it contains a private golf course. The unrelated Measure W is an advisory vote on the LAB North Beach project, a proposed retail/restaurant/office/parking development on three acres of city-owned land.

Open space is also the issue in San Juan Capistrano, where Measure X would prohibit any change in designation of open space lands, and Measure Z would authorize the sale of $30 million in bonds to acquire and enhance open space.

Measure BB in Yorba Linda would prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development projects. Measure Z in Seal Beach would impose a 25-foot height limit on the Old Town area.

San Bernardino County
On the ballot in the City of Loma Linda is Measure T, which would permanently preserve 1,675 city-owned acres in the South Hills for open space and recreation. About 200 miles away in Needles, an advisory measure asks voters about a Fort Mojave Indian Tribe plan to build a casino on 300 acres of tribal land adjacent to Interstate 40, four miles west of town.

San Diego County
Possibly the most intriguing measure on any ballot is Proposition B, affecting the San Diego Port Authority. The initiative would amend the port district master plan to permit a private entity to build a 96-acre deck 40 feet above marine cargo facilities. The initiative's backers, businessmen Frank Gallagher and Richard Chase, say the deck could provide a site for a football stadium, a sports arena, a convention center expansion, parking or other amenities. Port district directors lost a lawsuit to keep the initiative off the ballot. Proposition B will appear in the port authority's five member cities San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and Coronado

Proposition A tackles the subject of fire protection. Since 2003, large conflagrations that have killed 27 people and destroyed more than 4,000 homes in San Diego County. Proposition A would establish a regional fire protection agency and impose a $52 annual parcel tax to fund the agency. Although many local elected officials back the measure, the two-thirds vote threshold could be a major hurdle.

Slow-growth advocates in the City of San Marcos are behind Proposition O, which would bar most land use designation changes without voter approval. The measure purports to be retroactive to July 23, 2007 which would block a 217-acre specific plan that seeks to create a dense, mixed-use downtown with extensive parkland (see CP&DR Places, September 2007). San Marcos voters will also decide Proposition N, a city-backed measure that would prohibit changes to the city's ridgeline protection overlay zone without voter approval.

San Francisco
Voters here face the usual lengthy ballot. This time, it includes an $887 million bond to fund a seismically safe replacement for San Francisco General Hospital (Measure A), establishment of an affordable housing trust fund (Measure B), and creation of an historic preservation commission (Measure J).

San Luis Obispo County
An initiative intended to block a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter is the talk of Atascadero. Measure D-08 would limit retail stores to 150,000 square feet, and would limit stores with 5% of floor space dedicated to nontaxable goods (i.e. groceries) to 90,000 square feet.

San Mateo County
Redwood City voters may choose from land use measures that appear somewhat similar. Backed by environmental groups, Measure W would prohibit development of open space, tidal plains, and bayfront without two-thirds voter approval. The initiative is aimed at potential development of 1,400 acres of former salt flats owned by Cargill. The City Council-backed Measure V would prohibit development of the Cargill property without majority voter approval.

Santa Barbara County
Measure A would extend a sales tax for transportation for 30 years. The existing quarter-cent tax is scheduled to expire in 2010. Measure W would double the rate. Two years ago, an extension of the quarter-cent tax failed to garner two-thirds voter support.

In Buellton, Measure E would prohibit prior to 2025 the expansion of the city limits or the extension of sewer or water service beyond the boundaries without voter approval. Measure F would impose the same requirements but only through 2014.

Santa Clara County
A one-eighth cent sales tax to provide additional funding for a BART extension to San Jose is on the ballot as Measure B. The tax would be in addition to an existing half-cent sales tax for BART and other transportation projects. The new tax would be collected only if the Federal Transit Administration contributes $750 million to the BART project. Meanwhile, Measure C is a required advisory vote on the Valley Transportation Plan 2035. Measure D would eliminate the requirement that future transportation plans be subject to advisory votes.

In the City of Morgan Hill, voters will decide on the city-backed Measure H, which would modify a housing cap to permit development of 500 units in downtown. An initiative seeking to overturn the city's inclusionary zoning and affordable housing policies, however, will not appear on the ballot because a Superior Court judge ruled it would conflict with state housing law.

Solano County
Measure T asks voters to extend a slightly modified version of the existing Orderly Growth Initiative and ratify an updated county general plan. Scheduled to expire in 2010, the Orderly Growth Initiative prohibits most development of agricultural lands and directs growth to incorporated cities. Voters rejected an effort to extend those restrictions two years ago, but that opposition appears to have faded.

Stanislaus County
Measure S is the latest attempt for a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation. The tax would last 20 years and half of the revenue would pay for repairing and upgrading city streets.

Ventura County
Oxnard voters will decide what might be the most draconian growth-control measure on this fall's ballot. Measure V would require voters to decide on any development project of at least 5 residential units or 10,000 square feet of commercial, retail or industrial space that is proposed within five miles of an intersection with a level of services worse than C. Essentially, the measure would put every project before voters. Councilman Tim Flynn, who is also challenging incumbent Tom Holden for mayor, is Measure V's chief proponent. Both the business community and organized labor have come out against Measure V.

In Fillmore, Measure I would limit development in the North Fillmore Area to 350 housing units, instead of the planned 700.