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California and the West

Electorate Taking Control of Growth

Development: Voters considered a record number of planning issues. In general, localized initiatives fared better than broad strictures.

November 12, 2000|MIKE ANTON and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While all eyes last week were focused on who would win the White House, voters from Escondido to Sonoma County also zeroed in on whether they would get new Wal-Marts plopped in their backyards. Or lines drawn around their communities to contain sprawl.

As the nation's economic boom continues to spawn new development, voters are increasingly wresting control of planning decisions from government employees.

A record number of growth-related initiatives were on ballots nationwide Tuesday--so many that a think tank studying the issue hasn't begun to count them all. Across the West, voters decided scores of slow-growth issues. In California alone, there were 60 such initiatives--the most in a decade.

"There's a struggle going on over who's going to be in charge. It's part of a remarkable national conversation we're having on growth and planning," said Phyllis Myers, a consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

Experts say Tuesday's results, although mixed, point to several emerging trends. Voters seem willing to tax themselves to offset effects of growth by buying open space, but remain leery of sweeping controls on development.

And the more narrow or localized an initiative was, the better it did. A majority of California's local slow-growth measures passed, but broad-brush initiatives in Arizona and Colorado were trounced, as were similar measures in San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties.

Backers of the Sonoma County anti-sprawl initiative put this warning on their Web site: "Now is the time to act if we don't want to end up like . . . Orange County." The effort was opposed by 57% of voters.

They might have done better to follow, paradoxically, the example of Orange County, where a more focused anti-growth initiative that sprang from concerns about clogged streets near a proposed Newport Beach resort sailed to victory. "The bad guys were winning for a long time," said Tom Hyans, a proponent of the so-called Greenlight Initiative. "Now, it's time for the good guys to win."

By "good guys" he didn't necessarily mean environmentalists. Many slow-growth measures were supported by farmers worried about the loss of agricultural land, or neighborhood groups concerned about quality of life. In Newport Beach, Measure S was supported by a majority of the ritzy beach town's wealthy Republican voters.

Experts say Tuesday's vote shows the complexity of the growth issue, and how the battleground is defined by local issues.

"What happens depends on the community involved . . . what projects have been built in the past 10 years and whether people liked them or not," said Paul Shigley, managing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter for city and county planners. "It has to do with how bad traffic in a place has gotten--or not gotten--the health of the local economy, the competency of local government."

The National Assn. of Home Builders was among the national groups that campaigned hard against measures in California, Colorado and Arizona. "There's hardly ever a situation when intelligent land-use planning can be done at the ballot box," said Clayton Traylor, the group's vice president of political operations. "In Colorado and Arizona they were trying to rewrite a hundred years of land-use planning in one fell swoop."

In California, the robust economy and ensuing building boom led to a surge in growth measures on the ballot Tuesday.

More than half of California's slow-growth efforts prevailed, with voters more likely to approve local measures than county measures.

Five measures around the state imposing growth boundaries passed, including one in Alameda County that pitted the national Sierra Club and developers against each other in a $2-million campaign. But four others failed.

In Yucaipa, neighborhood groups halted construction of a Wal-Mart. But in Palmdale, an initiative supported by labor unions could not stop a nonunion Wal-Mart there.

In Escondido, voters passed a measure in 1998 requiring a citywide vote on major developments. This year, eight projects were on the ballot. All failed.

"It's very hard to get people to vote yes on something. It's much easier to get them to vote no," said Mark Petracca, political science department chairman at UC Irvine.

Greenlight's supporters say the measure will not stop all growth in Newport Beach.

"We were moderate in our growth control--I think of it as smart growth," said proponent Phil Arst. "If a project is meritorious, it isn't automatically blocked."

The one thing everyone agrees on is that voters will have to be well informed on everything from environmental reports to traffic projections. Critics say it will also be difficult for governments to do long-term planning on water, roads and infrastructure if every development is put up to a vote.

Even where slow-growth measures failed, elected officials were disheartened by voter backlash. In Brea, a measure that would have required voters' approval of all hillside projects lost by a razor-thin margin. Rex Gaede, one of 11 former mayors opposing the measure, said that while he was glad it failed, "the trust has been lost."

In San Luis Obispo, a measure called Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, was defeated by 59% of voters. But SOAR spokesman Tom Murray said the effort created a grass-roots movement that will endure.

"More than 30,000 people said they're concerned about sprawl," Murray said. Those residents, he said, will find ways to combat it.

"It's a speed bump," he said of the defeat. "This was a battle, not the war."

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Times staff writer Peter Hong contributed to this story.

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