The message from county voters was so loud last week that the Orange County supervisors had to be listening.
Frustrated by hours of traffic jams and gridlocked freeways, county residents clearly announced that they will no longer wait for protracted solutions from county supervisors, who many of the residents believe are more interested in placating developers than in responding to voters' needs.
Last week, slow-growth advocates turned over to the registrar of voters 96,401 petition signatures that will most likely qualify the grass-roots Citizens for Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative for a spot on the June 7 ballot. If approved, the measure will limit growth in the county's unincorporated areas.
An Orange County Poll published last week showed that 73% of the county residents surveyed support the initiative, even though less than one-half of them believe the measure will have a positive effect on jobs or the county's economy.
The poll, conducted for The Times Orange County Edition by Mark Baldassare and Associates, also found that nearly 60% of those surveyed believe the supervisors represent the interests of developers rather than residents.
True or not, a majority of residents believe it. With so little voter confidence, it might be asked how effectively the board can govern Orange County--and whether any decision the supervisors make regarding growth will be either supported or trusted.
The supervisors appear increasingly uncomfortable as they continue to straddle the widening gap between voters who demand limited growth and builders who are willing to pay millions of dollars for new roads and public projects in exchange for development rights.
In an unusual split vote last Wednesday, the board approved three of six development agreements on its agenda and postponed a decision on three others. The three approved projects will add 21,000 new homes and $67 million in road improvements in the southern part of the county.
The postponed projects would have added 17,000 more homes and nearly $130 million in private contributions for new roads. Approval for about 20 other development agreements is also being sought.
The development agreements are contracts in which the county agrees to freeze zoning and other land-use restrictions while guaranteeing developers that they will be able to build according to their current project plans. In return, developers agree to pay for new roads and public facilities.
Slow-growth advocates say the agreements are designed to remove large projects from the effects of the initiative should it qualify for the ballot and pass. Supervisors say the demand for new roads cannot be met without additional revenue, and they see the agreements as beneficial to the county and its taxpayers. Although progress may not yet be evident to voters, the supervisors say they have made strides toward curbing development and funding new roads.
Supervisors Harriett M. Wieder and Gaddi H. Vasquez have each announced slow-growth plans that could be adopted by board vote or by public election. But given the current political climate, voter approval of any board-sponsored plan without the support of slow-growth advocates would seem unlikely. The supervisors first need to restore public confidence in the board.
At this 11th hour, Vasquez has suggested the possibility of inserting some elements of the slow-growth initiative into the developer agreements now before the board. Other board members and slow-growth advocates should seriously consider this. Even if the initiative makes the ballot and is approved by voters, developer lawsuits challenging the measure could delay for years any implementation. Compromise now could bring immediate progress and avoid a high-stakes battle over the ballot measure.