The Citizens' Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative officially qualified for the county's June ballot Thursday, assuring a high-stakes debate over the future of development in Orange County.
The county registrar of voters announced that his staff had confirmed that an estimated 74,000 of the 96,000 petition signatures submitted last week by initiative sponsors were those of registered county voters. At least 65,110 valid signatures were needed to qualify the measure for the ballot.
The initiative will be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors, where it could be adopted as an ordinance or offered to the voters June 7.
One possible remaining snag is a lawsuit being discussed by real estate and development officials aimed at keeping the measure off the ballot.
Polls, experts and politicians have long speculated that if the initiative is put to a vote, it will pass.
"We have crossed a major hurdle in getting the signatures," said Gregory Hile, treasurer of the group that mounted the petition drive to get the measure on the ballot. "I don't want to say the worst is behind us because we still have to go out and fight the negative campaign that is ahead."
Tom Rogers, one of the original leaders of the initiative movement, said: "This is a turning point for Orange County. This came as a result of the greed and avarice of those people (developers). Now everybody is of one mind: It can't go any farther."
The initiative would bar major construction projects in unincorporated areas where the average speed of traffic is less than 30 to 35 m.p.h., and where vehicles cannot make it from one traffic light to another in one traffic-signal cycle. It would also set minimum response times for emergency vehicles and new standards for county flood-control and park systems.
The initiative that qualified Thursday affects only unincorporated parts of the county. But petitions for similar measures have been circulated in nearly all of the county's cities. Rogers said measures have qualified for at least two citywide June ballots. Two other cities are planning to adopt nearly identical measures as ordinances.
The potential political strength of the slow-growth movement in the county has already sent shudders through county government and the building industry.
Slow-growth is a concept that has swept long-term politicians out of office in other California cities, including Los Angeles. Already there are county and municipal candidates hoping to ride the poll-measured popularity of the initiative into office over established incumbents.
Rogers said Thursday that a representative of the slow-growth movement will ask the supervisors to adopt the initiative as an ordinance to avoid a costly public battle.
In the past, all the supervisors have privately spoken against the initiative. But Scott Morgan, an aide to Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, said Thursday: "If it's on the ballot, it's going to pass 2 to 1; we know that. So it really doesn't matter if it's passed by the supervisors or passed on the ballot."
Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said he thought that it would be irresponsible to predict whether the board will adopt the initiative but added that "it is an option."
Supervisor Don R. Roth said he would rather let the voters decide on the initiative. "I think the process is a good one," he said.
The supervisors are divided about how to respond to the initiative. They have talked about putting a growth-reduction measure of their own on the ballot as an alternative to the initiative. And some have favored adopting their own version of a growth plan as an ordinance.
"I don't think anybody knows" how the county will react, Riley said. "It seems to me that, at this point, we'd be derelict in our responsibility not to listen to any suggestions made by anybody."
The supervisors' reaction has also been influenced by the seemingly widespread support for the measure and a recent poll showing that most people believe that the supervisors represent the interests of developers rather than average citizens when it comes to growth. Some supervisors have said it might be best for them to separate themselves from the issue.
"I don't want to unduly influence the voters," said Harriett M. Wieder, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
'A Time to Be Led'
"I'm not sure that I can. I don't know if we have the credibility. There is a time to lead and a time to be led."
The supervisors have said the initiative would not resolve the county's traffic problems and could hamper the county's economy.
Although it would reduce development, they have said, it does not identify money for roads the county already needs to build but cannot afford. They also complained that the measure could not easily be changed if it is approved.
Whatever the supervisors do, developers and other land-use professionals are almost certain to file a lawsuit.