In San Diego, it began when ant-like columns of new condominiums began to march up and down the city's beloved canyons and hillsides.
In San Francisco, it happened when a new picket line of high-rise office buildings blotted out the sun in the downtown financial district.
Some trace the origins in Orange County to the day that drivers first had to wait an hour or more to clear the traffic bottleneck that forms where the 5 and 405 freeways merge near El Toro.
And in Los Angeles, residents worry about traffic, smog, water quality and about sewage and landfill systems that are nearing capacity.
For all these reasons, in all these places and more, the "slow-growth movement" has emerged. Both friends and enemies call it the most important political and socioeconomic phenomenon to sweep the state since Proposition 13, the property tax-cutting initiative, a decade ago.
Some critics label slow growth a greedy, middle- and upper-class movement, intended to benefit those who already own homes and other property, at the expense of those who do not.
"To a certain extent, it's a classic haves versus have-nots issue," said Joel Singer, chief economist for the California Assn. of Realtors.
Others predict that if the movement is successful, economic ruin will follow.
"It will stop economic growth, lower revenue and increase housing costs, unemployment and social welfare costs," said Kim Kilkenny, legislative counsel for the Construction Industry Federation of San Diego, a builder-developer organization.
Still others say the movement is doomed to failure by underlying demographic and economic trends that cannot be resisted.
More than 28 million people now live in California, and demographers predict that there will be 32 million by 1995. Until recently, newcomers were arriving in San Diego at the rate of 1,000 a week. Some economists say the state's economy is so strong that, barring a worldwide depression or a great natural catastrophe, there will be so many new jobs, and people seeking those jobs, that the slow-growth forces will be overwhelmed.
"If you want to stop growth in California, you've got one helluva tough fight on your hands," said Steven Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
But slow-growth leaders are not discouraged. They believe that the rate of growth can be slowed, if not stopped, and that future growth can be more intelligently planned.
"I don't think we have to accept Levy's 'free-market' approach," said Solana Beach lawyer Dwight Worden, who has drafted many of the state's slow-growth initiatives. "He says growth is inevitable and we can't touch these 'natural forces,' but I say we can and should change these forces in order to achieve some equilibrium in this state."
Whoever is right, many experts agree that the debate is one of the most important in recent California history.
"This is not dull, academic stuff," said Joseph E. Bodovitz, president of the California Environmental Trust and former executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "This is really the future of California we're talking about."
Once thought to be the peculiar preoccupation of people who live in hot tubs in places like Santa Barbara, slow growth has turned into a mainstream movement.
"I think it's like Proposition 13," said Madelyn Glickfeld, a Los Angeles planning consultant and a member of the California Coastal Commission. "There's a lot of fervor about this around the state and it seems to be building."
Increase in Measures
From 1971 to 1981, according to the California Assn. of Realtors, Californians voted on 46 local land-use proposals, but since 1981 there have been 202 such ballot measures. In the last 2 1/2 years alone, there have been 76 growth-control votes in the state, and 70% of the measures have passed.
San Franciscans have voted to reduce new office space drastically. Residents of Petaluma, Redlands, Camarillo and many other cities have limited the number of new dwelling units that can be built each year. Riverside voters have established tight controls over development in a citrus-growing "green belt" and in hillside areas, and have curtailed the city's authority to annex new lands.
In 1986, Los Angeles voters approved Proposition U, a sharp reduction in commercial and industrial zoning for much of the city. Last year, they threw out of office City Councilwoman Pat Russell, who was perceived as being too cozy with developers, and replaced her with slow-growth advocate Ruth Galanter.
Despite a stunning setback in Orange County in June, when a $1.8-million, developer-financed campaign defeated an initiative that would have curtailed growth in unincorporated parts of the county, the slow-growth movement still seems to be gaining momentum. Ten of 19 growth-control measures have been approved this year throughout the state, while only four of 14 pro-growth proposals have passed.