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Voters veer away from land use ballot drama in November elections

Martha Bridegam on
Nov 8, 2014

Californians voted cautiously this week if they chose to vote at all. It would be foolish to look for just one electoral mood in such a large state but when voters considered ballot measures related to land use, they mainly chose to preserve status quos.

This was conservatism in a sense not necessarily pro-business or libertarian, but almost more Tory than American in pattern. The current conditions that California voters chose to protect included existing open spaces, existing public services, and, in some cases, existing development potential. Voters were often willing to accept small new taxes. General-purpose sales taxes were most likely to pass but some special-purpose taxes were approved, especially for schools, infrastructure, transportation, parks and open space.

Voters tended to reject dramatic hard-sell appeals or egalitarian political gestures related to land use. Tenant protections were scarce on the ballot and not favored. Anti-development measures tended to succeed when they defended open space but fail when they resisted infill. "No" campaigns often won by raising doubts about hidden consequences of complex measures.

At CP&DR we have a selection of initial results on land use ballot measures posted at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3619 and many of the same measures are profiled further at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3613. In this article we'll get to some of those, and a few more land use measures that other commenters have mentioned from an anti-growth measure that failed in Menlo Park, to an expression of strong feelings against roundabouts in Placerville.

Not In My Back Forty

Open space measures did well, notably the passage of Santa Clara County Measure Q, a tax to preserve open space. Measure P, a much-criticized parks tax in Los Angeles County (see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3613), failed to reach the required 2/3 vote but won 62.04% of the vote.

Anti-development campaigns did well when they focused on preservation of open space, as with the defeats of two eastern Bay Area measures: Dublin's Measure T, which would have countermanded open space measures, mainly on the eastern Doolan Canyon area; and Union City's Measure KK, which would have relaxed development limits for a proposed 63-acre mixed-use project with potential impacts beyond the current proposal.

Measures did badly if they were presented as anti-development but had complex provisions that opponents could characterize as stealth upzoning.

El Dorado County anti-development measures M, N and O all lost, but the strongest margin -- 75.0% no to 25.0% yes -- was against Measure N, which was criticized as having mixed effects that could support a Sacramento-based developer. (See http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3613 and http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3565.)

Similarly, the City of Riverside's Measure L would have approved a specific plan that both promised open space and was criticized as seeking development authorizations, lost by 56.83% "No" to 43.17% "Yes". The Press-Enterprise reported a small grassroots campaign, and skepticism about an out-of-town developer, defeated the measure.

In Santa Monica, both Measure D and Measure LC used anti-development rhetoric (see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3613) in characterizing their measures as limiting potential future development of the Santa Monica Airport, but the winner was Measure LC, supported by conservationists and longtime opponents of airport noise.

As the SF Chron's architecture critic, John King, has noted, on three Bay Area measures, positions against downtown infill development lost: Measure R in Berkeley, which failed, would have imposed especially strict community-benefit requirements to exceed downtown height limits. (See our discussion of Measure R at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3613.) Measure M in Menlo Park would have limited the size of commercial projects and would have capped new office space overall. It failed dramatically in Menlo Park's small voting electorate, with 62.25% (4,144 voters) opposed. In working-class San Bruno, near the airport, over two-thirds of voters supported increasing height limits to add density around the Caltrain commuter station. King commented in detail on all three measures in September.

The Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization (ECCHO) handed a setback (likely temporary) to developer Michael Schlesinger in the defeat of the Lakes Specific Plan via Proposition H. That long-running dispute, however, is unlikely to be resolved by one vote.

Voters did go for measures that were presented as offering them a chance to undo a specific act by local officials: for example, Measure S to undo a prior 2013 Berkeley redistricting choice; Measure P, an advisory measure opposing the Highway 405 toll lanes in Costa Mesa; Measure S to undo a City Council billboard replacement deal in Santa Clarita, and Dublin's Measure T as mentioned above. Irvine's Measure V, a financial accountability measure on the Irvine Great Park, passed with a steep 88.7% "yes" vote.

And then Streetsblog LA and Nelson/Nygaard's Jeffrey Tumlin picked up on the Case of the Placerville Roundabout Menace. As we last discussed in July, some Placerville voters became agitated this summer over a plan to resolve an awkward meeting of streets by installing a roundabout. (For links to the campaign Web site and a Google Terrain map of the intersection, see our July item at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3532.) California voters may be turning Tory in their politics, but not so in their taste for street design. Placerville voted by an initial count of 58.2% to 41.8% to approve Measure K, requiring a public vote for construction of any roundabout in the city.

Tax choices

Voters' tax and other revenue choices are helpfully tabulated in a report by the California Local Government Finance Almanac. The charts there show specially earmarked sales taxes did not do well overall just four passed of 13 but one of the four winners was the large-scale Measure BB for BART to Livermore. A differently structured big transportation proposal, San Francisco's Proposition A, also succeeded (and so did Supervisor Scott Wiener's disputed Measure B to support the Muni system). Measures passed for streets and drains in Monterey, paratransit on the Monterey/Salinas system, and the Fresno Zoo. Measures that failed included one for the Del Norte County Fair, a library measure in Sonoma County, and a streets measure in Turlock.

Proposals to raise or extend transient occupancy taxes were surprisingly unpopular: only four passed out of 14. Sales and use taxes did better, almost regardless of the tax increment's amount.

Rental affordability measures disfavored

Tenant protection and affordable housing measures generally failed when they were substantive rather than symbolic. In San Francisco, the nonbinding Measure K passed, with a policy statement in favor of affordable housing, but Measure G, the anti-speculation tax, was defeated, in a major defeat for San Francisco's embattled pro-tenant lobby. The vote against Measure G also fits a larger pattern in that, like Berkeley's Measure R, it sought to redress inequality by placing what could easily be characterized as arbitrary burdens on a very specifically defined type of real estate activity. Opponents were able to create significant doubt about whether Measure G would be applied fairly to individual property owners' business and family situations. In Santa Monica, Measure FS, to raise registration fees for rent-controlled landlords, won narrowly but Measure H, to increase the transfer tax on million-dollar properties, failed. Its companion Measure HH, an advisory measure to spend the Measure H proceeds, if any, on affordable housing, won narrowly but has no effect because H was defeated.

Few grand gestures

Voters in general rejected grand gestures if they threatened to have substantive effects.

Where anti-fracking measures affected less current business in Mendocino and San Benito Counties, they passed. (An analysis by the Stoel Rives firm says San Benito County does have "significant reserves within its jurisdiction that require unconventional extraction techniques to produce.") Where it mattered the most economically, in oil-rich Santa Barbara County, the anti-fracking measure failed.

San Francisco's dueling astroturf measures, Propositions H and I, were subjects of an environmentalist campaign against health risks of artificial turf through the summer and fall, but voters chose to allow the Golden Gate Park playing fields to install astroturf and nighttime lighting.

San Francisco Proposition L, the pro-car "Restore Transportation Balance" measure backed by tech billionaire Sean Parker, failed resoundingly.

Sacramento's strong-mayor Measure L, another grand gesture in its way, also failed.