Developers suffered two losses during recent special elections. Voters in the fast-growing Riverside County city of Murrieta recalled the mayor and nearly threw out a second councilman. Meanwhile, the San Luis Obispo electorate rejected a 650,000-square-foot power center and the finance deal supporting the project.

At the May 3 election in Murrieta, three pro-growth members of the City Council faced recall. Voters ousted Mayor Jack van Haaster from office by a 51-49 ratio. Councilman Kelly Seyarto narrowly survived the recall with 50.7% of the vote, while Councilman Doug McAllister easily staved off the recall by winning nearly 55% support.

Citizens formed a group called Rescue Murrieta in the parking lot following a City Council meeting in June 2004, group spokesman Edward Faunce said. That night, the City Council approved a large day-care center proposed by van Haaster's daughter and rezoned land from large-lot residential to commercial to accommodate a proposed shopping across the street from a brand new shopping center. Those projects were on streets that were already gridlocked at certain times of the day, Faunce said.

Rescue Murrieta targeted van Haaster, Seyarto and McAllister for recall because they often formed a 3-2 pro-growth bloc. Van Haaster received additional criticism for meeting privately with four Planning Commission members regarding his daughter's application for the 400-child day-care center. That project got cut in half, and van Haaster later apologized for intervening, but the political damage had apparently been done.

"They didn't follow the general plan," Nancy Knight, a recall proponent and replacement candidate for McAllister's seat, said of the recall targets. "Multi-family housing is one of the big issues. They have really burdened our city with a lot of these high-density, multi-family housing projects."

Development interests bankrolled the campaign to keep the embattled officials, pouring more than half a million dollars into the campaign. Two branches of the Building Industry Association, Lennar Homes, Barratt American and at least four other development interests wrote five-figure checks to support the incumbents during the city's most expensive election ever.

Van Haaster was replaced by retired Air Force Colonel Rick Gibbs, who easily topped 20-year-old Casey Evans in balloting to replace the mayor. Rescue Murrieta endorsed Gibbs, but he is not a member of the organization. Still, the change on the City Council was apparent within minutes of Gibbs assuming office, when the council voted 4-1 to appoint Councilman Warnie Enochs as mayor. Frequently on the short end of 3-2 votes, Enochs has been on the council for 10 years but was never before selected mayor. During the same period, Van Haaster served six years as mayor and Seyarto, who voted against Enochs' appointment, two years.

Murrieta has experienced nonstop growth since it incorporated in 1991. In May, the Department of Finance reported that Murrieta has grown 92% in the last five years to a population of 85,100.

“The need to bring the infrastructure up to catch up with the rooftops is overwhelming,” said Rescue Murrieta's Faunce. “Our streets are not up to par. Our schools are overcrowded. It's almost an impossible job.”

Infrastructure was also an issue in the April 26 San Luis Obispo special election, specifically how to pay for an overpass across Highway 101 to a proposed power center. Under a development agreement between the City of San Luis Obispo and developers of the Dalidio Ranch Marketplace, the developers would have fronted most of the funding for the overpass. They would have been repaid up to $22 million through a sales tax “rebate.” The city also would have contributed development impact fees to the overpass.

Detractors said the development agreement was key in solidifying opposition to the project, which the City Council approved last year. In the referendum, voters rejected a general plan amendment (Measure A) 51.4% to 48.6%, and they defeated the rezoning (Measure B) 52.3% to 47.7%. The vote against the development agreement (Measure C) was a slightly more convincing 52.9% to 47.1%.

“If this was just a bunch of liberal left, environmental activists, we couldn't have done it,” said Ben Romo, a campaign consultant for a group called Save San Luis Obispo. “The residents of San Luis Obispo recognized that this was a deal that was going to cost the city money. … We had a number of supporters who have never opposed a development in their lives.”

An alliance of slow-growth advocates and downtown merchants emerged during the campaign. The groups, who have not always been friendly in the past, feared that that the power center would harm downtown, which is already facing a difficult seismic retrofit project.

“Some people who often don't agree on things were agreeing on this,” said Jan Marx, a member of Save San Luis Obispo, land use attorney and former council member. “We want to be a town with a vigorous downtown and a greenbelt.”

The referendum vote does not necessarily mean the project is dead. Because the city never completed annexation of the 131-acre site, property owner Ernie Dalidio and developer Bill Bird have filed an application with San Luis Obispo County. They pursued a project with the county previously but did not get far because the Board of Supervisors said the development belonged in the city limits.

As approved by the city, Dalidio Ranch Marketplace would have had 650,000 square feet of retail space, including a Lowe's Home Improvement Center, Target, Whole Foods, Old Navy, and a hotel. There also would have been 60 housing units. Bird told San Luis Obispo Tribune of that the project proposed for the unincorporated area would be “similar.”

Ed Faunce, Rescue Murrieta, (951) 296-0288.
Nancy Knight, Murrieta City Council candidate, (951) 677-2459.
Jan Marx, Save San Luis Obispo, (805) 541-2716.
Ben Romo, Save San Luis Obispo campaign consultant, (805) 570-5187.
Dalidio Ranch Marketplace: