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Voters Demonstrate Slow-Growth Tendency

Balloting on local land use measures during the general election provided the usual mixed-bag of results, but also a number of surprises. Overall, slow-growth forces won 22 of 39 classifiable elections.

Despite the poor economy, the electorate demonstrated a willingness to spend money and even raise taxes for transit, roads and schools. When considering specific growth measures, voters in growth-wary Santa Monica rejected an initiative to limit non-residential development, while voters in the growth battleground of Beverly Hills narrowly supported a condominium and hotel development. In Solano County, voters reversed themselves and offered widespread support for extension of a 1990 initiative protecting agricultural land and open space. In Redwood City, voters rejected two competing measures that would give them direct control of proposed bayshore development.

The results of other elections were more true to form. Redondo Beach voters maintained their skepticism of infill and redevelopment by approving a tight growth-control initiative. Napa County voters extended a landmark agricultural land initiative for 50 years. In the development-friendly cities of Oxnard and San Marcos, initiatives that sought to limit growth failed to get even 40% approval.

Nearly all of the growth measures appeared on ballots in urban coastal areas, reversing a modest recent trend that saw increasing ballot measure activity in inland areas. Not one growth measure appeared on the ballot in the Central Valley in November. The overall slow-growth victory rate of 56% was down a bit from November 2006, when voters went slow-growth in 26 of 42 (62%) elections (see CP&DR, December 2006). Four years ago, the pro-growth side won 16 of 31 ballot measures.

November 4 was a good day for transit. Los Angeles County voters backed a half-cent sales tax, with about two-thirds of revenues designated for transit improvements or operations. Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a new sales tax to fund a commuter train through the two counties. Santa Clara County voters narrowly approved a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to provide additional funding for a BART extension to San Jose. In a portion of the Alameda County Transit District, voters doubled a parcel tax to fund bus service. In Berkeley, voters rejected an initiative to block a bus rapid transit lane on Telegraph Avenue. And in West Sacramento, voters endorsed a plan to spend sales tax revenue on a new streetcar system.

Of course, state voters approved a $9.9 billion bond to start building a high-speed rail system. Also winning in November were sales tax extensions in Santa Barbara and Imperial counties, where transportation spending plans are geared more toward roads than transit.

In total, voters approved 47 out of 65 (72%) city, county and special district tax and bond measures requiring a majority vote, and backed 27 out of 52 (52%) measures requiring a two-thirds vote. "Across almost every category, approval rates of local revenue measures are as high or higher than those of similar measures since 2001," said Michael Coleman, a fiscal consultant to local government.

An amazing 86 out of 92 (93%) school bonds passed in November, providing a total of $22.2 billion for school construction. These measures included the Los Angeles Unified School District's $7 billion bond, which is the largest local school bond in history, the Los Angeles Community College District's $3.5 billion bond, San Diego Unified's $2.1 billion bond and Long Beach Unified's $1.2 billion measure. Of the six measures that failed, all but one were in relatively small, rural districts.


Coastal Growth Measures

Two of the most closely watched initiatives intended to limit development were in Oxnard and Santa Monica. Both lost.

The Oxnard initiative would have required 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 was proposed within five miles of an intersection with a level of services worse than C. Essentially, Measure V would have put every project before voters. Worried about the implications of the initiative, the city commissioned a study by Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) that determined traffic conditions would deteriorate under Measure V because development that could fund mitigation would decrease. The city also rolled out its own comprehensive traffic mitigation plan during the weeks before the election.

Councilman and mayoral candidate Tim Flynn spearheaded the Measure V campaign. He discounted the EPS study as overly pessimistic and said voters would be willing to approve beneficial projects. Incumbent Mayor Tom Holden was a chief opponent. He was joined by the business community and organized labor, both of which argued the initiative would kill economic development. Opponents outspent proponents 80-to-1, and, in the end, nearly 62% of voters said no to the initiative. Holden won re-election with 57% of the vote.

In an interview with the Ventura County Star, Flynn blamed his losses on "a strange coalition of labor, the press and big developers who concocted a witch's brew and fed it to the public and they drank it."

In Santa Monica, the Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) would have limited 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. In a city with slow-growth politics and heavily congested roadways, passage of the initiative was considered likely. However, an unlikely coalition emerged to defeat the measure. Developers and landowners, including Equity Office Properties of Chicago, Belle Vue Plaza, Macerich and Hines (which plans to build a 300,000-square-foot office complex on Olympic Boulevard) provided more than $700,000 to fight Measure T. They were joined by Terry O'Day, a planning commissioner and executive director of Environment Now, who served as the lead spokesman against the measure, as well as the politically dominant Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and a majority of City Council members.

During the campaign, O'Day called RIFT a "broad brush solution" that would not improve traffic congestion and would have negative unintended consequences. Initiative proponents, on the other hand, pointed out that Santa Monica has about two jobs for every resident, and argued that the city should focus on additional housing. The measure failed, receiving only 44% of the vote.

In nearby Redondo Beach, voters chose a slow-growth initiative over the city's less restrictive alternative. The Building a Better Redondo initiative (Measure DD) requires 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. Both measures passed, but Measure DD received about 2,800 more votes than the council's Measure EE and Measure DD will take effect.

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 and will apparently now need voter approval to move forward.


Smart Growth by the Bay

Three measures that could be characterized as "smart growth" passed in four Bay Area counties. Voters in Solano and Napa counties extended existing measures that prevent most development outside of city boundaries. Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund a commuter train that could induce transit-oriented development.

Solano County's Measure T is a 30-year extension of the Orderly Growth Initiative originally approved in 1990. Essentially, the initiative prohibits most development of land designated for agriculture, open space or watershed. Two years ago, voters narrowly rejected a 30-year extension of the policies when farmers and rural landowners organized in opposition, arguing that their evolving needs were not being considered.

After that vote, the county reached out to farmers and encouraged then to participate in an update of the general plan. The various interests began collaborating, the Orderly Growth Initiative was modified to permit some agricultural processing and tourism, and the general plan land use map was amended to permit development on the edge of cities and to eliminate a potential industrial park in a remote area along the Sacramento River. The Board of Supervisors adopted the general plan update but made the new plan contingent upon extension of the Orderly Growth Initiative. With no organized opposition, two-thirds of voters backed the measure.

"The biggest thing that happened during the two years was the general plan," said Nicole Byrd, a former Greenbelt Alliance field representative who served on a general plan advisory committee. "The farming community was very involved in the general plan process. There was a subcommittee that addressed agriculture that went out and talked to hundreds of farmers."

In adjacent Napa County, voters extended a similar initiative that prohibits development of agricultural land and watershed without voter approval. The 1990 initiative has become political bedrock, so there was very little campaign for or against the 50-year extension, which passed easily. Taken together, the Solano and Napa county extensions protect 980,000 acres, according to Greenbelt Alliance.

Greenbelt as well as the Sierra Club and other environmental groups endorsed the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) District's quarter-cent sales tax to fund construction and operation of a train running 70 miles from Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County to Larkspur, where it could connect with ferry and bus service to San Francisco. While right-of-way and rails exist, the system is expected to cost $430 million to build and about $19 million in annual operating subsidies. The sales tax also will fund a $90 million multi-use path running along the length of the rail line.

Two years ago, a nearly identical proposal failed to receive two-thirds support, largely because less than 60% of Marin County voters backed the tax. But with higher gas prices, ever-increasing congestion on Highway 101, growing concern over climate change and goodies like the recreational path, additional funding for train "quiet zones" at grade crossings and a more popular station site in Novato enough voters changed their minds to pass the tax. The tax polled about 5 percentage points higher in Marin County and 3 points better in Sonoma County this time around.

Besides carrying about 5,000 passengers a day, the SMART train is expected to encourage transit-oriented development. Santa Rosa and Windsor have already moved ahead with such projects in anticipation of the train, and cities such as Petaluma have potential for development around downtown train stations.


Transportation Funding

Sales taxes for transportation fared very well in November. Los Angeles County's half-cent tax expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years passed despite being placed on the ballot at the last-minute and with a less-than-precise spending plan. Santa Clara County's eighth-cent tax was proposed specifically to provide additional funding for a BART extension, even though voters had already approved a half-cent tax partly to fund BART. The Santa Clara County measure appeared as if it would pass, although the margin was very close three weeks after the election. Extensions of existing sales taxes for transportation also passed in Santa Barbara and Imperial counties. Transportation taxes failed for a second time in Stanislaus and Monterey counties.

"All the measures that passed were in counties that have experience with sales tax measures," said Sarah West, of the Self-Help Counties Coalition. "The sales tax agencies have a positive history of delivering projects and the voters in those areas feel comfortable that a further investment in local transportation projects is a good investment that will be managed well."

In addition, West said, "Voters understand that the state is broke and realize they will have to contribute local funds to get the improvements they want."

Backers of the Los Angeles County measure emphasized projects such as the extension of the Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica, extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa, and construction of a busway or light rail line into South Los Angeles. But the actual projects could evolve. Measure R divided up revenues this way: 35% for rail construction, 20% for highway construction, 20% for bus operations, 15% for local projects, 5% for rail operation, and 3% for Metrolink.

Transit fared well nationwide, as voters approved 23 state and regional initiatives that will provide $75 billion for transit systems, according to the nonpartisan research group Center for Transportation Excellence. The largest single measure was an $18 billion expansion of mass transit services in the Seattle area.

The complete rundown of California local election results is available here.