This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first voter-approved growth control initiative in California. In 1972, voters in the City of Petaluma — in Sonoma County, 40 miles north San Francisco — capped approval of new homes at 500 units per year, or about half the previous year's total. Growth has remained a hot issue in Petaluma, but today it lacks the urgency it had during the 1970s.

"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Petaluma was really just thinking about itself. Now we're much more connected to the rest of the Bay Area," said Vice Mayor Mike Healey. "The regional forces have been driving things."

Residential growth has slowed to below the 500-unit cap in the last few years, and rapid development of office space for the region's high-tech companies is emerging as an issue. On the local political front, the residential growth management system that voters imposed 30 years ago is overshadowed by an urban growth boundary (UGB) that the electorate approved in 1998.

Residential development pressure hit a peak in Petaluma during 1969, when Caltrans completed the Highway 101 freeway from the Golden Gate Bridge into Sonoma County. Until that time, Petaluma had been mostly a dairy and poultry town that saw a few hundred new homes built annually. The freeway transformed Petaluma into the northern-most bedroom community for workers in San Francisco. In 1970, builders erected about 600 homes in Petaluma, an increase of two-thirds from the year before. The number of new homes jumped to 900 in 1971. The rapid growth overwhelmed public services: Schools went to double sessions and the wastewater treatment system failed.

"Things were just getting out of hand," recalled Jack Balshaw, one the seven citizens who drafted the ballot initiative. "Basically, what got the whole community in an uproar is that the schools went on screwy sessions."

Balshaw said he presented the number 500 as a starting point for negotiations, but people immediately accepted it without discussion or study. Unlike most caps approved later in other cities, the initiative did not address building permits or certificates of occupancy. Rather, it controlled the city's ability to create parcels or housing units through subdivision maps and other regulated activities.

Balshaw, who later spent four years on the Planning Commission and 13 years on the City Council, said initiative supporters wanted to slow growth to a manageable rate so that the city and other public entities could provide adequate schools, streets, water lines, sewer treatment, parks and public safety facilities. Developers immediately challenged the initiative in court. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the initiative in the landmark case Construction Industry Association, Sonoma County v. City of Petaluma, 522 F2d 897 (9th Cir.) 1975.

The case set a precedent because the court recast the police power, said Thomas Jacobson, a professor in the Sonoma State University environmental studies and planning department. Previously, local government used the police power to facilitate development. But the Ninth Circuit said it was not unconstitutional for Petaluma voters to use the police power to dictate a slower rate of growth. Moreover, voter approval of the initiative combined with the court ruling challenged the notion that growth is always good, said Jacobson, who called the Petaluma situation "a pivotal event occurring at a pivotal time."

City councilmembers were not always happy with the constraint and several times they backed ballot measures to overturn the 1972 initiative. But voters always said no. Over time, the residential growth management system became an accepted part of the political and planning landscape. Community Development Director Michael Moore said the original initiative did what it was supposed to do and has help give Petaluma a stable rate of growth for three decades.

"It created an opportunity for the city to look not just at growth in numbers, but for the city to look at facilities and services," Moore said. "The system was really set up to take a long-term view of growth."

Today, Petaluma's population of 56,000 is about double what it was 30 years ago. Nearly all growth during that time was east of Highway 101, creating something of an east-west rivalry in town. Downtown has very slowly morphed into a trendy shopping and nightlife district. A niche of the telecommunications industry has made its home in southern Sonoma County, and Petaluma received applications for about 2 million square feet of office space in only 18 months.

Yet Petaluma remains well-connected to its rural roots. Pastures and open space surround the city. Two creameries still operate in town. Tall feed silos that hover over downtown are still in use. A handful of manufacturers and resource companies still use the Petaluma River through the middle of town for transporting materials and products.

"One of the things that is attractive about Petaluma is that mixture of old and new," Moore said. A proposed specific plan commits the city to protecting the older land uses that could otherwise get crowded out. Grain silos and creameries "still support the surrounding agricultural community, and people see that as an important tie to the community's past."

Hoping to further protect agriculture, Petaluma voters in 1998 approved an urban growth boundary; since then, UGBs have swept through Sonoma County to protect the vineyards, pastures and open space that contribute to the local character. Petaluma's boundary is just beyond the city's sphere of influence, and Moore worries that it places too great a constraint on the town because there are few large, vacant parcels remaining within the UGB.

Further complicating the situation is the popular opposition to increasing densities within existing urbanized areas, and the city's lack of serious redevelopment efforts. In fact, redevelopment earned a bad name in Petaluma in a roundabout way. An auto mall built along Highway 101 during the 1990s was a redevelopment project. The city insisted on minimizing auto mall signs so it allowed the developer to erect one large marquee. Locals dislike the large, brightly lit sign next to the freeway and see it as a failing of redevelopment, Moore explained. Thus, there is a hesitation to increase redevelopment efforts. The city has maintained an aggressive housing program, and 22.5% of units built since 1984 are affordable.

Still, Vice-Mayor Healey noted, the city will reach buildout inside the UGB in less than 20 years. He said city officials must pursue infill and redevelopment projects, which he called "healthy and challenging."

"Those things would be harder to make happen if the fields around town were available, which, for the most part, they are not," Healey said.


Michael Moore, Petaluma Community Development Department, (707) 778-4301.
Thomas Jacobson, Sonoma State University, (707) 664-3145.
Jack Balshaw, 1972 initiative proponent, (707) 763-2846.
Mike Healey, Petaluma vice mayor, (707) 778-4360.