The Board of Supervisors approved three landmark agreements with developers Wednesday, ensuring the construction of nearly 18,000 homes, and then unexpectedly offered to discuss a compromise with sponsors of a countywide slow-growth initiative.
Approval of the three development agreements represented a commitment by the supervisors to proceed with an innovative and controversial plan under which developers will contribute more than $240 million for new roads in return for guarantees that preserve their rights to build.
"Today is a decision day where we proceed with the (road plan) or we essentially walk on the program," Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said before the vote. "I believe the (road plan) is an investment in our future that we cannot afford to lose."
County officials say the roads covered by the plan, known as the Foothill Circulation Phasing Plan, are badly needed and could not be built without private funding. Developers say they cannot obtain financing for the projects to which the road funding is linked without guarantees from the county that future land-use decisions will not interfere with their building plans.
But the sponsors of the countywide slow-growth initiative that qualified for the June ballot last week have labeled the development agreements an attempt to circumvent the effects of their measure.
Three slow-growth sponsors spoke against the agreements at the supervisors' meeting Wednesday. But more than 20 other groups--including homeowners associations, the Audubon Society, the AFL-CIO and Mission Viejo--praised the agreements as the only realistic way to relieve traffic congestion in south Orange County.
The three agreements passed Wednesday relate to Rancho Santa Margarita, the Foothill Ranch and Dove Canyon. Two weeks ago, the board voted 3 to 2 to postpone a decision on whether to approve the three agreements. The vote Wednesday to approve them was 4 to 1, with Supervisor Roger R. Stanton voting no.
The meeting was marked by an exchange between the supervisors and sponsors of the slow-growth initiative in which both sides pledged to work together in hopes of producing a compromise growth plan that would avoid a divisive election battle. All the supervisors have expressed opposition to the initiative.
The exchange Wednesday began when Gregory Hile, a leader of the initiative movement, protested the development agreements because they do not place the same restrictions on builders that would be required under the slow-growth measure.
After his testimony, Board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder asked if he would work "with the county to put an alternate measure on the ballot?"
"I would be interested in coming up with a solution, whatever that solution is," Hile said.
"I accept your offer," Wieder replied, "and I perceive a sincerity. Then you're saying there possibly needs to be another approach to the initiative and maybe we can jointly do it together."
Hile: "What I'm saying. . . ."
Wieder: "Yes or no."
Hile: "Yes, I will work with the county. I have always said that."
One of the supervisors' chief complaints about the initiative is that it does not identify ways to generate private money for roads needed by the county. Vasquez asked Hile whether he would consider adding a financing mechanism to the initiative.
Hile responded: "Possibly. What we have seen in the polls . . . is that people would not support a financing mechanism if there was not a base line in place. Our initiative is a base line, and the polls now say that if that is in place, people will know what they're getting for their money. They will support that."
At the end of the meeting, Wieder ordered the county staff to prepare a proposal for a comprehensive plan that would prescribe limits on development in the future. She also asked that the slow-growth initiative sponsors participate in the preparation of the plan and that it be completed by Tuesday.
Asked what is likely to come of her request, Wieder said: "I can't answer that. But at least my putting it out there gives a platform for dialogue and discussion."
Wieder has already asked that the county examine a growth-management plan that was passed by the city of Carlsbad. Vasquez has been researching a separate growth-management plan.
It is possible, some supervisors said, that a new growth-management plan and the slow-growth initiative might be molded into an alternative measure for voters to consider in June. Or such an alternative might be adopted by the supervisors in place of the initiative.
On Tuesday, the board is scheduled to take up the slow-growth initiative. It may certify the initiative for the June ballot, adopt it as an ordinance or, by calling for a study on its impact, delay a vote on the measure until November.
The initiative sponsors have bitterly complained about the possibility that a vote on the initiative could be delayed, but at least three supervisors already have indicated that they are not likely to vote for a delay.