It was the ultimate irony, Laurel Roennau thought, that she should get stuck in traffic as she rushed to City Hall to file papers for a slow-growth initiative that would cut development throughout Santa Monica.
But with minutes to spare, she reached City Hall before closing time and formally set in motion an effort by an ad hoc group of residents to place the initiative on November's ballot.
With the slow-growth issue inextricably thrust into election-year politics, another group four days later filed a second, similar slow-growth initiative.
Both measures contend that commercial development has gotten out of hand, threatening Santa Monica's "special residential character and charm." Both charge that city officials too often succumb to developers, allowing huge projects that are out of scale with the rest of the city and strain already burdened streets and sewers.
The measure filed first was sponsored by a group called Santa Monica Tomorrow; the second one belonged to a group called Let's Grow Slow.
In fact, the filing of two initiatives was the result of a last-minute split inside a core group of about a dozen slow-growth proponents that, after working for months to draft an initiative, divided over whether sewage controls should be included, sources said.
Both proposed measures would curtail growth by lowering permissible building heights and densities. Both also prohibit rezoning residential areas for commercial use.
In addition, Santa Monica Tomorrow's proposal links a developer's permission to build to the capacity of streets and sewers to accommodate newly generated traffic and sewage.
"This was driven by people exasperated by a City Council that can't say 'no' to development," Henry McGee, a law professor and one of the authors of the Santa Monica Tomorrow initiative, said in a news conference. "This is part of a citizens' revolt that you see all over the state."
"While not perfect, (the initiative) can stop the hemorrhage that seems to be going on in the using-up of our resources," Herb Sandel, another supporter of the measure, said.
The city attorney's office, in the next 15 days, must review and authorize both proposed initiatives before supporters can circulate petitions. About 5,400 signatures would be required to qualify a measure for the ballot.
The appearance of two initiatives, however, could cloud the issue for many voters and jeopardize any chance of success. It is possible that the two sides could try to overcome their differences and combine the measures.
'Should Work Together'
"There are enough enemies out there that all of us who believe in quality-of-life issues should work together," Sharon Gilpin, a member of Santa Monica Tomorrow, said.
The second proposed initiative addresses traffic but not sewage. Sponsor Kelly Olsen said he was cautious about including sewage; he said his faction felt that significantly reducing building densities and traffic would take care of sewage.
"Trying to control (growth) through sewage output is a fairly new concept," he said.
Some members of the City Council and business community criticized the idea of a slow-growth initiative as an unnecessary, exaggerated measure that would lead to a building moratorium and erode the city's tax base.
"I wouldn't call it a slow-growth initiative, I would call it a no-growth initiative," Mayor James Conn said.
"There is a real dramatic difference (between) trying to control growth and having a balance between development and quality of life, and something that says (to developers), 'I'm sorry, please don't apply.' "
Conn defended efforts by the City Council to downzone over the years.
The council recently voted to limit development by up to 50% in some areas of the city as part of a comprehensive revamping of the zoning code. Some people thought that action would preempt the need for an initiative, which would remove much of the discretionary power council members have in approving development projects.
"That's the problem with doing zoning-by-referendum," Conn said. "You only use the initiative process when you have a political body unwilling to respond to the needs of a community on a given issue. That is not this situation . . . (the council) has been very responsive."
Conn's term ends this year but he has not announced whether he will run for reelection.
City Councilman Dennis Zane, who is running for reelection, recently announced his own, separate slow-growth proposal. It would limit new commercial, retail or hotel development to 150,000 square feet a year and set up a formula to put a lid on the amount of sewage that can be produced in the city. Zane said Wednesday that he would incorporate the proposal into his own initiative but said he hoped the council would make an initiative unnecessary by adopting a "responsive growth management system."
Sponsors of the Santa Monica Tomorrow initiative said setting annual quotas of permitted square footage was not adequate for controlling growth.
Supporters said an initiative, if passed, would demand accountability and "performance standards" from city planners and guarantee follow-up to see that developers comply with measures to reduce traffic or pollution.
Both proposed initiatives encourage growth at the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Mall and other "smaller-scale projects." But both would slash development in half at Santa Monica Airport, where the city is planning a 1.3-million-square foot office and movie studio complex.
Initiative sponsors say they will finance their effort through contributions.
City planners acknowledge that ongoing and proposed development projects in Santa Monica already approach the amount of growth forecast for the year 2000 and have recommended "more balanced growth" in the future.