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Ballot-Box Planning Moves Inland

Paul Shigley on
Dec 1, 2004

For the first time ever, San Joaquin County became the focus of ballot-box planning in California during the November election. Voters in Stockton sent mixed messages about growth, but the electorate in the south-county city of Tracy delivered two solid blows against development.

Statewide, in local ballot measure results that could easily be classified, voters took the pro-growth side 16 times, while slow-growth advocates won 15 measures. The results were a bit more oriented toward slow-growth than were the results in recent general elections. In November 2002, the pro-growth side won 19 of 32 ballot measures. In November 2000, the results were even more pro growth, 34-21.

Meanwhile, voters across the state demonstrated a willingness to pay for highway and transit projects with local sales taxes. Five counties placed extensions of existing half-cent sales taxes on the ballot in November, and voters in four counties - Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Mateo - passed the taxes overwhelmingly. The other extension, in San Diego County, was winning narrowly with county officials still finalizing election results.

Five other counties that placed first-time sales tax measures on the ballot did not fare as well. Only voters in Marin County gave clear approval to a new tax, while the vote on a quarter-cent tax in Sonoma County remained too close to call. In the Bay Area edge county of Solano, a second-try at a new sales tax received 63.5% of the vote, just short of the two-thirds required. However, in the slow-growth strongholds of Santa Cruz and Ventura counties, new sales taxes for transportation failed to garner even simple majorities, let alone the two-thirds votes required for passage.

Central Valley growth conflict

Unlike recent years, the coastal counties of Ventura and San Diego did not have large numbers of developed-related measures on local ballots. Instead, San Joaquin County was the center of attention. Located south of Sacramento and just over the Altamont Pass from the Bay Area, San Joaquin County is a prime “Bay spillover” county, where bargain-hunting commuters snap up homes in Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop, Stockton and the new Mountain House development. Over the years, voters in Lodi have shown slow-growth tendencies while deciding a number of ballot measures. In general, though, the county has had strong pro-growth politics, and ballot-box planning has been a rarity. But November's election results in Tracy and Stockton might signify a political evolution.

“This is starting a new era in the county,” declared Eric Parfrey, chairman of the Sierra Club's Mother Lode Chapter and a leading proponent of Measure Q, which sought to establish an urban growth boundary around Stockton. “There is going to be an ongoing discussion between elected officials and the voters about growth issues.”

Yet Stockton election results did not clearly indicate where that discussion might lead. Voters narrowly approved the Sierra Club's Measure Q, which essentially used the city's existing urban services line as 20-year growth boundary. But voters also approved Measure S, a property owners' alternative initiative with a provision that specifically overruled Measure Q. Moreover, voters approved Measure X, developer John Verner's initiative that carved a 1,000-acre exception in the Measure Q boundary so that Verner may pursue a 4,000-unit housing project. The only ballot measure that voters rejected was Measure T, a city-sponsored alternative to the Sierra Club initiative that called for the creation of a “greenbelt master plan.”

Measure S, which passed nearly two-to-one, strengthens an existing right-to-farm ordinance. The measure declares that existing agricultural uses cannot be considered nuisances because of surrounding land use changes, and creates a legal presumption favoring agricultural operations. The measure further requires the owners of land converted from agricultural to urban uses to record deeds of restrictions waiving any rights to complain about farming operations.

The idea behind Measure S, said Stockton land use attorney and initiative proponent Steve Herum, was to remove pressure on growers and dairy operators who find that homeowners in new housing tracts object to typical agricultural practices and want to shut down the farms.

“Measure S is a farming initiative that was written by farmers and for farmers,” said Herum, whose wife runs a family-owned dairy. “This gives them a safety net.”

Herum contended that Measure Q and Measure S are different means of reaching the same end of slowing Stockton's outward expansion. Instead of using regulations, Measure S creates a greenbelt by helping farmers who maintain that greenbelt, he said.

Measure Q proponents, however, call Measure S a “Trojan horse” that does nothing to halt growth. Although Measure S contains a poison pill for Measure Q, proponents of the latter initiative said there is no inherent conflict between the two. Litigation over the disagreement is possible.

Maybe more important for the long-term were the inroads made by a fairly new group called Campaign for Common Ground, which helped run the Measure Q campaign. Among the highest profile members of the group was former state Sen. Patrick Johnston.

Also bolstering slow-growth advocates was the victory of incumbent State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden) over Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto in a $10 million campaign that was largely focused on growth. Podesto, who backed the failed Measure T greenbelt initiative, was portrayed as a developer's best friend. After the election, Podesto, who failed to carry his own city, conceded to the Stockton Record, “I think there's a perception out there that the developers run the council.”

Slow-growth advocates' newfound confidence is likely to reappear during Stockton's general plan update process. In May, the city released a proposal that called for Stockton to grow from about 260,000 people to more than 700,000 by 2050, largely through the conversion of farmland into dozens of new community villages.

In Tracy, the election results were clear-cut and could have an immediate impact. In 2000, Tracy voters enacted an initiative that capped building permits at about 600 per year, roughly half of the existing rate. City officials, however, insisted that the Measure A building cap allowed for a 10-year average, so the city has continued to issue more than 1,000 permits annually. To reach the average of 600, officials will have to shut off permits beginning in 2006. Potentially, the only permits that will be available will be Measure A's exceptions for downtown development and affordable housing.

With this handwriting on the wall, AKT Development and The Surland Companies qualified two initiatives for the November ballot. Measure U would have carved an exception into the building permit cap for AKT's 5,500-unit Tracy Hills project, giving the Sacramento-based developer 600 building permits a year. Meanwhile, Measure V would have given San Ramon-based Surland 250 permits a year for a proposed 1,600-unit transit village along a commuter rail line. Despite the developers' combined spending of nearly $2 million in a city of 65,000, voters rejected both initiatives. AKT's Measure U received only 30% of the vote, while Surland's Measure V fared slightly better at 43%.

The message, said building cap proponent Mark Connolly, was “don't mess with Measure A.” Tracy residents want to see job growth, not more houses that will only exacerbate the difficult commute to the Bay Area, Connolly said.

Mike Souza, vice president of Souza Realty Development, a partner with AKT on Tracy Hills, predicted that people will be shocked and upset when construction dries up in 12 months.

“We're still building at the rate that it was before [Measure A]. It never got changed. So we're going to go from 1,200 units a year to 100 units a year. Nobody has felt that yet,” Souza said.

Both Connolly and Souza pointed to contention regarding the city's general plan update as a major factor in the election. The draft plan provides for a 150% increase in the city's population over the long run, but, detractors contend, does not do enough to encourage commercial and industrial growth.

In northern end of San Joaquin County, voters in Lodi rejected an initiative that would have prohibited retail stores larger than 125,000 square feet without voter approval. The initiative came in response to Wal-Mart's proposal to build a 227,000-square-foot “supercenter” in Lodi. With Measure R getting only 42% of the vote, supercenter hearings are scheduled to resume this month.

A half-cent for transportation

The November election marked the first time that a large number of counties have placed the taxes on the ballot since a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling made clear that local-option sales taxes need two-thirds voter approval. The apparent success of at least six of the 10 sales tax measures - combined with approval of a multi-county, $980 million bond for BART upgrades, and approval of a parcel tax increase in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties for bus service - surprised even many transportation advocates.

“There's a really broad statewide consensus, with a few anomalies, and it stretches from urban to rural,” said Eric Haley, president of the Self-Help Counties Coalition and executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission. “There is no ideological relationship here. Sonoma County went for Kerry as much as San Bernardino County went for Bush,” he said. Yet, if the results hold, both counties will have approved transportation sales taxes.

Stephanie Vance, program manager for the transit-oriented Center for Transportation Excellence in Washington D.C., said California exemplified the national trend. Voters in dozens of localities approved a variety of transportation-related taxes. “It just seems to be that everyone wants more choices,” Vance said.

Perhaps most closely watched was San Diego County, where the vote on a 40-year extension of a half-cent sales tax was barely winning as CP&DR went to press. A number of elected officials, including three county supervisors, and environmental groups opposed Proposition A, although for different reasons. Supervisors wanted more money earmarked for pavement, while environmentalists urged increased spending on transit. However, frustration with traffic congestion and a high-profile educational campaign by the San Diego Association of Governments appeared to override complaints about the measure, which also calls on cities and counties to impose a $2,000-per-unit fee on new housing units.

Proposition A directs its projected $14 billion roughly one-third each to highways, transit, and local streets and roads. The measure also has components that direct funding toward “smart growth” efforts, such as transit-oriented developments and downtown projects.

The anomalies to which Haley referred were Santa Cruz and Ventura counties. In Santa Cruz County, the election amounted to a referendum on plans to widen Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Watsonville because two-thirds of the sales tax revenue would have gone to that single project. Even though the existing four-lane freeway is jammed day and night, the election result was not a surprise because Santa Cruz County has been hostile to freeways since the 1960s. The county's longstanding opposition to Highway 17 improvements is widely credited for preventing San Jose from growing toward the sea.

In Ventura County, the most populous county in the state without a local-option sales tax, a transportation tax measure appeared on the same ballot as a quarter-cent tax for open space preservation. Neither measure received even a bare majority vote.

Haley said California appears to be evolving into two-tier state because the two-thirds vote requirement “may be impossible in some communities and in some political climates.” The next stiff fights are likely to be in Fresno and Orange counties, which will see sales tax overrides expire in the next several years, he said. Counties that want transportation improvements “need to bring something to the table,” said Haley, who noted that new Caltrans Director Will Kempton previously headed the state's first self-help organization, the Santa Clara Transportation Authority.

Contacts:
Eric Parfrey, Sierra Club, (209) 462-7079.
Steve Herum, Herum, Crabtree & Brown, (209) 472-7700.
Mark Connolly, Tracy Regional Alliance for a Quality Community, (209) 836-0725.
Mike Souza, Souza Realty Development, (209) 835-8330.
Eric Haley, Self-Help Counties Coalition, (951) 787-7141.
Stephanie Vance, Center for Transportation Excellence, (202) 244-2405