Court Places Slow-Growth Initiative On Santa Paula Ballot
The Second District Court of Appeal has ordered the City of Santa Paula to place a slow-growth initiative on the ballot.
The Santa Paula city clerk blocked the measure from reaching the ballot last year after concluding the initiative petitions did not satisfy state elections law because they did not include sections of the general plan the initiative would amend. The unanimous three-judge appellate panel ruled that the city clerk's demands went beyond the state Elections Code requirements.
The initiative — which would require a public vote on any project of at least 80 acres proposed at a density greater than the general plan allows — could appear on the November ballot.
In making the ruling, the court built on a 1998 decision from the City of Hayward regarding what language an initiative petition must contain. In Mervyn's v. Reyes, 69 Cal.App.4th 93 (see CP&DR Legal Digest, February 1999), the court ruled that an initiative did not comply with Elections Code § 9201 because the petitions did not contain 17 pages of the city general plan to which the initiative text referred.
The Mervyn's decision contained some "loose language," said Richard Francis, the attorney for the Santa Paula initiative backers, and development interests have used that language to argue that petitions for ballot measures seeking to amend a general plan need to contain the entire general plan. The decision in the Santa Paula case "really is a very helpful clarification — to know that you don't have to do that," Francis said.
Santa Paula City Attorney Karl Berger read the decision differently.
"Depending on your point of view, it's either a clarification of what the law is, or it's a departure from what the law is. I think it's a departure," Berger said.
Berger conceded the city leaned heavily on the Mervyn's decision, which, he said, followed a long line of cases with similar outcomes. "The city clerk felt she had no other choice but to bounce the petition. That's certainly was what I advised her," he said.
In May 2005, a group called We Care – Santa Paula submitted signed petitions for their initiative. City Clerk Josie Herrera verified that the petitions contained sufficient valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. However, Herrera rejected the petitions because they did not show where in the general plan the proposed language would be inserted, what parts of the general plan would be amended or the current text of the land use element.
We Care sued, and Ventura County Superior Court Judge Steven Hintz accepted Herrera's arguments. The Second District, however, quickly dismissed those arguments.
"The city points out," Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote for the court, "that We Care's petition seeks to amend the general plan. It believes this requires that the land use portion of the general plan be included in the petition. But the amendment does not change any land use or density designation in the general plan. Nor does it even purport to prohibit any change in land use or density. It simply adds a provision to the general plan requiring that any increase in density for projects involving 81 or more acres be approved by popular vote. The petition contains the full text of the measure. There is no need to include any portion of the general plan. Certainly, the passage of We Care's initiative will affect the general plan. But § 9201 does not require that a petition include the text of every plan, law or ordinance the measure might affect."
The court distinguished We Care's petitions from those in the Mervyn's case, and petitions in other cases where courts identified Elections Code flaws. The petitions in the Mervyn's case referenced portions of the general plan by heading and chapter number but did not include the text. Similarly, referendum petitions rejected in Creighton v. Reviczky, (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 1225, identified the ordinance in question by number and title but did not contain the ordinance's text. Three other cases involving rejected referendum petitions also failed to provide the text of ordinances to be repealed.
By contrast, Gilbert wrote, "We Care's petition does not omit the text of an incorporated exhibit or any other portion of the proposed enactment. Instead, the petition contains the full and complete text of everything that will be enacted if the voters approve it."
Berger said the City Council would likely seek a political compromise with We Care rather than request a state Supreme Court hearing.
Interestingly, the project that spurred the We Care initiative is scheduled to be decided by voters this month. That project is a 2,165-unit development proposed by Centex for an area in which the general plan now allows about 450 houses. The City Council approved the project in December 2005, but We Care forced a referendum vote.
We Care – Santa Paula v. Herrera, No. B186242, 06 C.D.O.S. 3822, 2006 DJDAR 5617. Filed May 9, 2006.
For We Care: Richard Francis, (805) 486-5898.
For Herrera: Karl Berger, Jenkins & Hogin, (310) 643-8448.