A 50-year extension of Napa Valley's landmark initiative preserving agricultural land is widely expected to win approval on November 4. While Napa Valley's Measure P provides a ho-hum, it signifies just how much the political landscape has changed during the last two decades.

Nowadays, we take for granted that voters have the ability to amend general plans or even write their own plans; initiatives that block development without subsequent voter approval are commonplace. This November's ballot is full of these sorts of initiatives. But it was not always this way.  

Slow-growth initiatives have appeared on local ballots in California since the 1970s, and they reached an early peak in 1986, when voters decided 45 local growth measures. These measures often came in the form of annual growth caps, building permit limits and infrastructure requirements. But Measure J in Napa Valley was different. The 1990 initiative was a Napa County general plan amendment that sought to preserve all agriculturally designated land. It did so by preventing any change in agricultural land use without voter approval. No more encroachment of houses, restaurants and B&Bs into the county's prized grape-growing land without voter consent. Growth would have to go into the cities or one of the very small urban nodes in the unincorporated area, unless voters were willing to allow an exception.

Measure J was controversial both in substance and style. Builders, landowners and some elected officials campaigned against Measure J. The concept of locking up agricultural land was new and scary to some. The idea that voters themselves could amend a general plan appeared to be based on squishy legal ground. The general plan would no longer be a living, flexible document that the Board of Supervisors could adapt as it saw necessary – something that was either good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.

After voters approved Measure J, landowner Richard DeVita and the Building Industry Association of Northern California sued, challenging virtually every aspect of Measure J. The end result was the state Supreme Court's 1995 landmark decision DeVita v. County of Napa, 9 Cal.4th 763, in which a five-justice majority made perfectly clear that voters could amend a general plan and impose subsequent-vote requirements on development.  

Slow-growth advocates in Ventura quickly followed up with a Measure J copycat called the Save Our Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, which voters approved. It appeared a revolution was at hand.

But if there was a revolution, it has moved in slow motion. Ventura County and nearly all of its cities eventually approved SOAR initiatives. Voters in Sonoma County adopted urban growth boundaries around all the cities. Alameda County voters approved Measure J-style restrictions for the eastern part of the county. But when Measure J copycats in San Luis Obispo County and Sonoma County lost, the revolution appeared to founder. After voters approved Measure D in Alameda County during the November 2000 election, not a single similar, countywide initiative was passed until Stanislaus County voters backed the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative in February of this year.

Instead, what we see are initiatives that tinker with general plans, or that block development in certain areas, or of certain types, without voter approval. In Grass Valley, for example, there is an initiative that would prohibit changes to the land use element without voter approval, and a competing initiative that would require voter approval of boundary changes and annexations. San Clemente has an initiative that would prohibit rezoning or development of open space – which may include golf courses – without voter approval.  Measure O in San Marcos would block almost any zoning change without voter approval. Redwood City has a measure that would prohibit development along the bayfront without two-thirds voter approval. You get the idea.

Although Measure J may have been more of a turning point than a revolution for California as a whole, it has become political bedrock in Napa County. There is no organized campaign against Measure P, which would extend the provisions originally approved in 1990 through 2058. All five city councils and the county Board of Supervisors have endorsed Measure P. Arguments about the dire consequences of locking up ag land for a long period and killing the hospitality industry have vanished. Now that's a revolution.

– Paul Shigley