Voters appeared to be in both an anti-tax and an anti-growth mood in June.
In recent years, voters have shown a willingness to approve sales tax increases to fund transportation projects. But in the June primary, voters in five counties said no to sale tax increases, with four of the five measures not even close to passing. The startling results have some transportation backers rethinking plans to place sales tax increases on the ballot in November.
Meanwhile, voters showed a slow-growth bent, as they rejected a 2,100-unit housing development in Santa Paula, narrowly approved a far-reaching growth-control initiative in Yorba Linda, and overwhelmingly rejected a property rights initiative in Napa County. Voters also approved eminent domain limitations in Orange County and the City of Chula Vista.
The only substantial victories for development interests occurred in San Bernardino County. Voters in the Town of Apple Valley approved an amendment to a 1999 initiative that had required voter approval for zoning changes. And in the City of Barstow, more than 80% of voters rejected an initiative that attempted to halt two casinos proposed by out-of-area Indian tribes.
The rejection of sales taxes for transportation is likely to have the most far-reaching effects. Sales taxes in Merced, Monterey, Napa and Solano County all failed to receive the necessary two-thirds of the vote. In Santa Clara County, a general purpose sales tax that would have provided money for a BART extension to San Jose and county health facilities failed to receive even the needed majority vote.
“There is a feeling of mistrust,” said Suisun City Mayor Jim Spering, who is chairman of the Solano Transportation Authority and member of the nine-county Metropolitan Transportation Commission board. “It was almost like an anti-incumbent vote. The state is in a very angry mood right now.”
Shiloh Ballard, director of housing and community development for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and a leader in the campaign for Santa Clara County’s Measure A, detected a similar sentiment. Polling about a week before the election showed support for local government sinking, she said.
“People were feeling less confident in the county government generally,” Ballard said. “I kind of feel like we had the right campaign, but the wrong time. Timing can be everything.”
Indeed, only 19 months earlier, voters approved new transportation sales taxes for transportation and sales tax extensions in seven counties. At that time, taxes failed in only four counties. One of the those four counties was Solano, but the tax received 64% backing. Voters in Santa Clara County have approved sales tax overrides four times since 1984. But this time, neither tax received even majority support, despite minimal opposition campaigns.
“This was by far the biggest coalition of supporters we’ve ever organized,” said Ballard. “When you see that even library bonds lost, that makes you feel a little better,” she added, pointing to the defeat of state Proposition 81.
Sarah West of the Self-Help Counties Coalition said there were numerous factors in the defeat of the sales tax measures. June elections are always tougher for spending items, and people had been hearing about the large state bond package coming in November, she noted. Plus, the two-thirds requirement is “incredibly difficult,” she said.
According to West, as many as 10 counties are considering placing new transportation sales taxes or extensions of existing taxes on the ballot in November. Amador, Kern, Placer and Stanislaus counties are considering first-time taxes. Renewals could appear on the ballot in Fresno, Imperial, Madera, Orange, San Joaquin and Santa Barbara counties. The situation is most urgent in Fresno County, where a half-cent sales tax is scheduled to expire in 2007, and an attempt to extend it in 2002 received only 54% support.
Spering, the 20-year mayor of Suisun City, recommended counties avoid even trying a sales tax in November. Voters’ lack of confidence is based on issues such as the state’s circumventing Proposition 42’s dedication of gasoline sales tax for transportation, and restoring confidence will take time, he said.
“It has got to start at the state Legislature. The Legislature is going to have to restore the money for transportation and things people think they were supporting,” Spering said. “At the local level, we need more accountability.”
The Central Solano Citizen/Taxpayer Group, which opposed the sales tax, sounded a similar theme. “Voters were pretty clear. We have already paid our share of taxes to maintain state and interstate highways,” John Takeuchi wrote on the group’s website. “Caltrans is responsible for the work. We will not be intimidated into taxing ourselves again for jobs that are not our responsibility.”
In the growth wars, voters also demonstrated skepticism of their elected officials’ decisions. In the Ventura County city of Santa Paula, voters rejected development for the second time in three months, and the fourth time in six years. The latest project to lose was a proposal from Centex for 2,155 housing units and a smattering of retail space on about 800 acres in rugged Fagan Canyon, on the city’s northern end. Centex had agreed to set aside about 1,000 acres of open space. The City Council approved the project in late 2005, but the group We Care – Santa Paula qualified a referendum for the ballot. About 53% of voters rejected the project.
Centex, which spent about $1.5 million in the campaign against the referendum after losing a lawsuit to keep the measure off the ballot, indicated it was through fighting Santa Paula’s activists. And city officials portrayed the vote — which occurred only two months after voters declined to enlarge the city’s growth boundary to accommodate a 495-home luxury housing project and golf resort in a different canyon outside of town — in stark terms. “In terms of another developer coming in to build in the canyons, I think this closes the door on that idea,” Councilwoman Mary Ann Krause told the Los Angeles Times.
But Richard Main, who authored the referendum, rejected the characterization that We Care is a “no growth” group.
“It’s not that we don’t want any houses or any growth. We just can’t seem to get the City Council and the city planners to look at growth with a discriminating eye,” Main said.
Main, who helped draw the city’s growth boundary that voters approved in 2000, said Fagan Canyon was included within the boundary even though it is outside the city limits because it could provide for growth. But earlier studies had suggested about 450 units, he said.
Next up for Santa Paula voters will be an initiative that would require voters to decide any project of more than 80 acres proposed at a density greater than allowed by the general plan — an initiative that a court ordered reluctant city officials to place on the ballot (see CP&DR Legal Digest, June 2006).
In the north Orange County city of Yorba Linda, voters narrowly approved the “Right to Vote on Land Use Amendments Initiative.” The measure requires a vote on any proposal to increase residential density, rezone residential land, rezone nonresidential land for more than 10 units per acre, or repeal any “planning policy document.” The initiative also establishes a citywide height limit of 35 feet and adds new noticing requirements.
The initiative resulted from the city’s plans to redevelop the town center. Last fall, the city adopted a plan providing for 500 housing units and 560,000 square feet of retail development in a 60-acre redevelopment project area. Slow-growth advocates qualified a referendum of the town center plan, which the City Council then withdrew. The redevelopment opponents also advanced the right-to-vote initiative, and, even though the town center plan had been repealed, discontent apparently lingered. The initiative passed with 51% of the vote.
In Napa County, a property rights initiative that mimicked Oregon’s Measure 37 was trounced, receiving barely more than one-third of the vote. The initiative would have required the county to compensate landowners for the economic impact of new regulations. It was authored by Napa Valley Land Stewards Alliance, a fairly new organization that fought a successful referendum campaign in 2004 to repeal a county stream setback ordinance (see CP&DR, March 2004). Flush with that victory, the group pressed ahead with the “Fair Pay for Public Benefits Act.”
However, Napa County has a history of slow-growth politics. In 1990, county voters approved Measure J, which reaffirmed agricultural land use designations and required a public vote to change them. Measure J was the subject of the landmark case DeVita v. County of Napa, 9 Cal.4th 763 (see CP&DR Legal Digest, April 1995), in which the state Supreme Court ruled that a general plan may be amended by initiative. Measure J remains a cornerstone in Napa County, and the Fair Pay initiative was viewed as a threat.
In San Bernardino County, as usual, things were different. Voters in the Town of Apple Valley approved an amendment to a 1999 initiative that had given them final say over zoning changes. The Town Council contended that the 1999 initiative was focused on limiting residential development to two units per acre, and that the requirement for a subsequent election on zoning was superfluous. Officials said the requirement was hindering their ability to attract desired industrial development.
Farther out in the desert, Barstow voters rejected an initiative that attempted to block a proposal for side-by-side Indian casinos. The Chemehuevi tribe backed the initiative, which would have established a casino development preference for tribes based in San Bernardino County. The tribe opposes a deal amongst the state, the city and two out of the area tribes — the Big Lagoon tribe from Humboldt County and the Los Coyotes band from San Diego County — for a major casino resort along Interstate 15 in Barstow.