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Rural Boom Sowing Revolt at Ballot Box

Agricultural regions are mounting initiatives to control land use. But the movement is touching off debate over whether local authority will be sacrificed.

November 02, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Along with jobs and a fat state budget surplus, California's boom has produced something less predictable--a ballot box revolt against growth.

There are about 50 local and county initiatives dealing with growth issues on Tuesday's ballot--the most in a decade. A handful are pro-development, but the overwhelming majority seek new limits.

Up and down the state, in small towns and rambling counties, the proposals reflect increasing public frustration with elected officials' willingness and ability to manage the latest wave of subdivisions and malls swallowing up lettuce fields and coastal hillsides.

Though so-called ballot box planning may not be the best way to shape a community, "you can't blame people for their concern," said Tony Lettieri, president of the California chapter of the American Planning Assn. "They see a lot of lip service paid to 'smart growth.' But when they look at their communities, they see the same old subdivisions constructed."

The citizens of Tracy, a Central Valley farm community discovered by Silicon Valley commuters, will decide whether to slash the number of houses that can be annually built within city boundaries. Placer County residents in the Sierra foothills will vote on whether to increase their sales tax by a quarter-cent to finance land preservation programs.

Ballot measures in the Orange County towns of Newport Beach and Brea would subject many major developments to citywide votes.

And two widely watched initiatives in Sonoma and San Luis Obispo counties would require a public vote on zoning changes of agricultural land and open space, essentially stripping county government of its power to approve development on farmland.

Leslie, a 53-year-old nurse who has lived in San Luis Obispo County for three decades, virtually hisses when he talks about spreading development near Arroyo Grande.

"I've seen a beautiful place destroyed," he said, adding that he will probably vote for the growth control proposal, called Measure M. "The county government doesn't know what it's doing."

San Luis Obispo County covers 2.1 million acres, the equivalent of a couple of small Eastern states. More than half is agricultural: rolling hills of oaks and grazing land, rich valley bottoms planted with vegetables, and a rapidly growing number of vineyards.

Several hours' drive from the sprawl of the Bay Area and Southern California, it is a place people escape to. They attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and never leave. They retire here. They treasure the classic California landscape as if it were a winning lottery ticket.

But parts of the county are beginning to look like suburban anywhere. Leslie, who declined to give his last name, was buying groceries in a new shopping center next to U.S. 101. Housing tracts run up and down the nearby hills like lines of ants.

That and similar scenes spurred environmentalists to put Measure M on the ballot.

Called Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, the initiative is similar to ones approved in Napa County in 1990 and Ventura County in 1998.

The measure would prohibit agricultural, open space and rural residential land from being rezoned for development during the next 30 years without a countywide vote.

The initiative campaign is a contentious one. Ranchers, farmers, Realtors and the development industry have united against the proposal, paying for television ads and color mailers fiercely denouncing it.

Measure M will take away local control, they argue, require public votes for minor land use decisions and hurt farmers by robbing them of flexibility to run their operations as they see fit.

What's more, anti-M spokesman Don Warden said the proposed controls aren't necessary.

"You can't compare us to Orange County or Los Angeles County," said Warden, whose family has been ranching outside San Luis Obispo since 1868. "This area has a much higher level of consciousness about controlling growth and sprawl and the quality of life."

The pro-M forces have responded with their own aggressive TV ads, accusing opponents of distorting the initiative and lying about its impact.

As for local control, it hardly exists now, they maintain--not when a supervisor from one part of the county can tip the balance in favor of a development unwanted by a community in another part of the county.

"It's a response to a system that is breaking down," said Measure M spokesman Tom Murray. A 49-year-old building contractor from Arroyo Grande, Murray is one of many who moved to the area to attend Cal Poly and stayed.

He says he started paying attention to growth when his children's elementary campus "went from a small, intimate school to split classes" because of leaping enrollment.

"For me," he added, "it's about the quality of our neighborhoods and our communities. Yeah, that's the party line--but it's real."

The arguments are much the same in Sonoma County, which is facing intensifying development pressure as high-tech and telecommunications firms move to the area.

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