A line is drawn in the sand of Santa Monica, and the future use of nearly five acres of choice beachfront property hangs in the balance.
Will the city's voters endorse construction of a $65-million luxury hotel and community center on the beach or call a halt to such development?
Will the promise of millions of dollars in new revenue for city services outweigh objections from environmentalists who oppose placing a posh hotel on public land?
Will voters sort through a maze of conflicting claims and understand how to vote on a confusing ballot question?
As the campaign enters its final days, the answer to these questions is in doubt. So, a full-court press is on, with both sides making last-minute appeals to voters through the mail, on the phone, at the door, and on slate cards.
The hotel has come to embody the citywide debate over development, and the election shapes up as a test of the clout of slow-growth forces. Despite the intense grass-roots interest, however, most of the financing for this final campaign blitz is coming from bitter rivals in the battle over the future use of a beachfront parcel that is owned by the state and managed by the city.
The latest campaign contribution reports show restaurateur Michael McCarty has spent more than $282,000 on his campaign to realize his dream of building a posh hotel and a community center on Pacific Coast Highway.
On the opposite side, Sand and Sea Club operator Doug Badt and members of the now-closed private club that occupied the property for years have contributed nearly $42,000 in recent weeks to the fight against McCarty. Together with late contributions from other sources, including a Pacific Palisades neighborhood group and Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), opponents have raised nearly $55,000.
The fate of the hotel project is now in the hands of the voters, who must decide Proposition Z on Tuesday's ballot and two other ballot measures, Propositions S and T that would clamp a moratorium on development of hotels and restaurants elsewhere on the Santa Monica beachfront.
Over the protests of the slow-growth community groups that have emerged as a significant force in city politics in just the past year, the Santa Monica City Council approved the 148-room hotel and community center on a 4-3 vote last August. But fearing a voter backlash, the council made its approval subject to ratification by the voters, and put the hotel issue on the November ballot.
Rather than a straight up-or-down vote, however, the council accepted language suggested by McCarty's attorney that asks voters whether they want to repeal the city's approval of the project.
Consequently, opponents of the hotel must vote yes on Proposition Z and supporters of the facility must vote no.
If there is one thing that both sides agree on, it is that the wording of the ballot measure has caused confusion in voter's minds.
"They chose to hand the voters confusion. They chose to do it on purpose," charges Sharon Gilpin, leader of the Yes on Z campaign that opposes the hotel project.
Gilpin, who also is a candidate for City Council, said the wording has forced opponents to adopt a double-barreled campaign message that tells voters that a yes vote on Proposition Z means a no vote on the beach hotel.
McCarty and his team of political consultants have settled on a different theme. In a parade of campaign mailers, they have attempted to sell voters on the financial and social benefits of the project, which was selected by the city from 11 separate proposals for use of the beachfront property.
The beach property would be leased to McCarty and his associates for 60 years with two options that could extend the term to 99 years.
McCarty contends the project will generate $32 million in lease payments, sales tax revenues and hotel tax receipts over a 10-year period. The money would be used to support city and park programs, provide better security and beach maintenance, help clean up Santa Monica Bay and allow Santa Monica school students to use an environmental center and art facilities in the community center next to the hotel.
The three-story project would also include changing rooms and showers for the public and a beach cafe.
Gilpin rejects such arguments, questioning the financial projections the estimate is based on. And she objects to the concept of developing a "super-luxury hotel" affordable to a tiny percentage of the population on a publicly-owned beach. "People don't want hotels on the beach in Santa Monica."
Opponents also have been seeking to focus anti-development sentiment in the city against McCarty's project by making it a symbol of overdevelopment.
McCarty, a pioneer in California cuisine who built upscale restaurants in four cities across the country, balks at being branded as a major developer.