The November election in the City of Fairfield could provide a significant indicator of how the city of 103,000 people will grow during coming years. After many years of supporting pro-growth officials, the electorate will cast ballots on a policy that requires voters to decide on changes to the Solano County city's urban limit line, which the City Council tightened last year. The election will mark the latest phase in Fairfield's evolving growth politics and policies. For three years, the Fairfield City Council has had its first slow-growth majority, which took office following the voters' 9-to-1 rejection of an expansive urban growth boundary initiative backed by development interests. In 2002, the council approved a comprehensive amendment to the general plan that tightened the city's urban limit line by excluding areas around Travis Air Force Base and in an area north of the Interstate 80 and I-680 interchange. After the council adopted the new general plan, an odd collection of environmentalists, farmers, Air Force veterans and anti-tax advocates qualified an initiative for the ballot that would lock in place the tighter urban limit line and a new "Travis Reserve" until 2020 unless voters approved amendments. In May, the council voted 4-1 to adopt the initiative rather than place it on the ballot. Pro-growth advocates responded with a referendum on the growth measure; the referendum qualified for the November ballot. Although the vote concerns specific planning measures, the choice is seen in town as the old policies of rapid greenfield growth on the edge versus slower-paced infill and redevelopment. "Fairfield in the past gerrymandered, we made cherry-stems — which aren't even legal anymore. We did all kinds of leapfrog development," recalled Mayor Karin MacMillan, who backed the initiative. Today the council opposes that approach to development. But without the requirement of voter approval for urban limit line changes, the policies of the past could return with three votes of the council, she said. Councilman John English, however, said he voted against adopting the initiative because, "It has nothing to do with the growth element. It has to do with taking the decisions out of the hands of the people who are elected." Any councilmember who backs development outside the urban limit line adopted in 2002 or in the Travis Reserve would have to answer to voters, English said. English is only one faction of the referendum supporters. He said he backs the 2002 general plan amendment, except that he would permit construction of affordable housing for military personnel in the Travis Reserve. The Chamber of Commerce, which backs the referendum, opposed the 2002 general plan changes. In a recent newsletter, the chamber contended that the general plan "limits new industrial areas to locations riddled with wetlands, vernal pools and endangered species." An inventory by the city found that Fairfield could accommodate at least 10,000 housing units and 35 years worth of commercial and industrial development inside the current growth boundaries. At 37 square miles, Fairfield is geographically large for a city with its population. Both sides say they want to protect Travis — which is Solano County's largest employer — from future base closings. Although it may be difficult to imagine the Bush administration shuttering military bases, many people remember the pain induced by the base closures of the 1990s, including the closure of Mare Island Navy Shipyard in nearby Vallejo. Prior to 2002, the Fairfield general plan designated lands north and east of Travis as a future growth area. The revised general plan keeps those lands in their agricultural state, said Associate Planner Dave Feinstein. The idea, Mayor MacMillan said, was to give Travis room to expand while preventing new homes from encroaching on the base, especially near the flight path. But the Chamber of Commerce contends the initiative "has nothing to do with protecting Travis AFB." Instead, the Chamber argues, the measure creates a "no-growth ring around the entire city," and that the restriction will prevent the development of housing to serve officers and enlisted personnel at Travis. The Chamber argues that the cost of housing is a strike against Travis in any future base closing proceedings. Despite a troubled economy in the Bay Area, housing prices in northern Solano County and Fairfield have increased by roughly 20% during the last year, with the median for both now at about $300,000. No one seems to be serious about shutting down growth in Fairfield, so the argument over how to grow is central to the November election. The new general plan scaled back the city's outward expansion by blocking growth near Travis and in the middle Green Valley. In exchange, the city targeted eight areas within the city limits for increased density and infill development, Feinstein said. Greenbelt Alliance backs the general plan because it speaks to "compact, attractive development" on infill sites with transit orientations, said Greenbelt Field Representative Natalie DuMont. The organization contends the city should focus on revitalizing existing districts, in part by approving residential projects in what have been purely commercial areas. "There are a lot of vacancies. There is a lot of strip mall-type development that is not getting foot traffic," DuMont said. She and others hope a new county administration building on the edge of downtown will bring new life to downtown, which has made a slow march back to life since the 1980s. Construction on the county building began this year. Ernest Kimme, of the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee, contended the new general plan policies address Fairfield's "sprawl problems" by sparing productive agricultural land near town and pushing growth to existing districts. Kimme's organization has been involved in the growth wars for more than 20 years, helping pass two countywide initiatives that steer urban development to incorporated areas. Those same activists have helped elect the Fairfield City Council's current majority. MacMillan, who leads that majority, said she wants to see well-designed, mixed-use projects. "We're trying to be as creative as we can be. You need to have a good housing mix. You need to have a good jobs-housing mix," she said. Councilman English said he is "all for vertical development" and downtown redevelopment. But he doubts whether those who want to rein in growth on the edge will actually support high-density infill when the time comes. "I'd love to build affordable housing, starter homes. African Americans and other minorities can't get their first leg up," said English, who is African American. "We need to start putting action to our words." During an August hearing, the council split over a 9-acre mixed-use proposal of 70 townhouses, 17 live-work units and four commercial buildings. MacMillan backed the plan, but two other councilmembers refused to support the housing component. The council ended up sending the proposal back to the Planning Commission, which unanimously rejected the plan earlier. Contacts: Karin MacMillan, Fairfield mayor, (707) 428-7395. John English, Fairfield councilman, (707) 428-5680. Dave Feinstein, Fairfield planning department, (707) 428-7448. Natalie DuMont, Greenbelt Alliance, (707) 427-2308 Ernest Kimme, Solano County Orderly Growth Committee, (707) 447-1555.