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Voters Make Development a 4-Letter Word


Santa Monica voters have spoken loud and clear on the matter of beachfront development: They're against it, period.

The city's voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed beach hotel and community center, and by just as large a margin they approved future curbs on construction in coastal areas.

City officials immediately reacted by saying they have heard the message. Mayor Dennis Zane, for one, acknowledged that a slow-growth movement that has been gathering steam for several years has become a potent political force that must be heeded in planning for the city's future.

"I think one of the key messages in this vote," Zane said, "is that the voters are cantankerous about development, to say the least. They have firmly rejected it."

In the most stinging rebuke to pro-development forces, voters Tuesday rejected restaurateur Michael McCarty's longstanding plans to build his proposed Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Community Center on five acres of state beachfront property where the private Sand and Sea club operated until recently. By approving Proposition Z in a 61.6% to 38.4% vote, voters in effect repealed the city's development agreement with McCarty.

McCarty lost despite spending more than $370,000 on the campaign, far more than his opponents spent in trying to persuade voters to kill the proposed 160-room, $300-a-night luxury hotel.

It was McCarty himself who asked last summer that the fate of the project be placed in the voters' hands, after which the City Council gave the project its tentative approval based on expectations that it would generate up to $3 million a year in city revenue.

Among the city's first priorities, Zane said, will be to "return to the drawing board," and find another way to use the site in a way that meets a mandate from the state that the property produce revenues while ensuring public access to the beach.

Voters also strongly supported a so-called "Save Our Beach" initiative, Proposition S, 61.7% to 38.3%, and rejected a weaker beach development moratorium, Proposition T, 56.7% to 43.3%, with all ballots counted except several thousand late absentees. Passage of Proposition S means that future development of hotels and large restaurants west of Ocean Avenue, except on and near the Santa Monica Pier, will be prohibited.

The curbs on development marked a victory of sorts for Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who helped lead the fight against the hotel as a referendum against what he said was overdevelopment in the seaside city.

"Voters have sent a clear message that they want to put a stop to excessive development, that they want to save the quality of life in Santa Monica and they will vote against any candidate or initiative or project that doesn't fit in with that message," said Adi Liberman, Hayden's chief of staff. "Developers will think twice now about their plans--you will see a lot of people scaling back what they are proposing."

Although the election marked the first time voters have had a chance to vote on development issues, it was the second time this year that the City Council's approval of a major development project has been reversed by the will of the people.

Earlier this year, the council rescinded its approval of a major commercial project planned for city-owned land at Santa Monica Municipal Airport after a grass-roots coalition led by slow-growth activist Sharon Gilpin had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the development.

Gilpin, who also headed the effort against the beach hotel and ran unsuccessfully as a City Council candidate, said the outcome of Tuesday's election indicates that voters are fed up with the development projects approved by the council in recent years.

"People are tired of the City Council doing deals and trotting them out two years later," after the projects are well under way, Gilpin said.

Looking toward the future, Gilpin and other slow-growth activists predicted that the council will pay much more attention to their wishes when considering hotels, offices and commercial developments. And if they do not, Gilpin said, activists will use the initiative process more and more in countering any pro-development biases still left in the council.

The effect of the anti-development sentiment on the City Council races was unclear, except that the only incumbent, Christine Reed, appeared headed for an unexpected defeat. Reed supported most of the large development projects that have come before the council in recent years, and became a target for much of the anti-development campaign rhetoric.

"I don't think people in this city are going to stop . . . trying to halt further large commercial development in this city," Gilpin said, "and in making sure projects conform to the environment in a better manner than the city has approved in the past."

Contrary to some speculation, McCarty said through a spokesman that he had no plans to take legal measures to try to save the hotel project. A wealthy restaurateur whose flagship operation, Michael's in Santa Monica, is credited with helping create the California cuisine craze, McCarty reserved comment on the reasons for his loss.

In a statement, he said only that: "I am very happy the campaign is over, but very disappointed in the result and now will move on with my life. If I had known what this campaign was going to be like, I might not have entered the fray."

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