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Voters to Say Grow or No Grow

More homes or more open space is the question facing many communities at the ballot box on Tuesday.

November 04, 2002|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

California voters on Tuesday will consider a diverse set of growth initiatives in a ballot-box war between anti-sprawl activists and real estate interests. They will decide two dozen local measures in coastal communities and small farm towns around the state.

From Alameda to Escondido, activists are campaigning to keep tracts of open space from being subdivided. Using ballot initiatives, they are trying to preserve untouched hillsides, put caps on the number of building permits issued and prevent construction of individual housing projects.

In response, home builders are spending heavily to promote their own visions of California's future: the construction of new master-planned communities to address a statewide housing shortage.

Overall, it's a Nov. 5 grow-or-not potpourri:

There's an old-fashioned property-rights battle in rural Nevada County, a question of building heights in bustling Berkeley and a proposed resolution to a long fight over farmland in Watsonville.

In Southern California, Ventura County leads the way with costly and controversial ballot measures that could define the boundaries of growth in three cities for decades to come.

While the measures vary widely, the underlying issue is the same, said Paul Shigley, managing editor of California Planning and Development Report, a monthly newsletter.

"It's all about grappling with the 500,000 new people California adds every year," he said. "The question is, 'How are we going to deal with that?' "

For the last decade, Ventura County -- a national pacesetter for growth control -- has let voters answer that question.

"Ventura County loves to vote on this stuff," Shigley said. "It's become part of the political landscape."

Since 1995, every major city in the semi-rural suburban county has passed its own anti-sprawl law, requiring voter approval before projects can be built on farmland, open space or beyond set urban boundaries.

This fall, voters are seeing a backlash by landowners and developers. In Ventura and Santa Paula, where hot markets have nearly doubled housing prices, development interests have spent between $750,000 and $1 million sponsoring initiatives that would allow 1,390 and 2,200 new homes respectively to be built in scrubby canyons and on brush-covered hillsides.

At the same time, Ventura County has produced a second generation of growth-control measures that would further shrink the boundaries for urban expansion. That's happening in Simi Valley, a fast-growing commuter enclave near the San Fernando Valley. If activists win, the vote would effectively block two major housing projects pending before the city.

"If the Ventura and Santa Paula measures pass that would send an encouraging signal to developers," said author William Fulton, who heads a planning think tank in Ventura. "That is: A political campaign is a big hassle, but it's not as big a hassle as going through the City Council first."

If the Simi Valley measure passes, Shigley said, it's possible that growth-control activists will follow suit in other cities, trying to shrink urban boundaries just a few years after voters approved the first set. "I could see them trying the same thing in Oxnard, Camarillo and even Ventura," Shigley said.

In Northern California, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, Alameda County is Ventura's growth-control counterpart. There, half a dozen ballot measures focus on stopping construction on vacant land one parcel at a time.

"People are looking to Manhattan-ize the Bay Area," said Jean Sweeney, chair of Alameda Open Space. "My attitude is we ought to put a cap on the number of people who can live here."

Farther inland, communities struggling to keep their small-town feel are considering growth caps.

Halfway between Stockton and Sacramento, in the heart of the Delta Recreation Area, the city of Galt is one of the Central Valley's fastest growing communities. Residents worried that Galt could become the next Elk Grove -- a burgeoning Sacramento suburb --want home building limited to 300 units a year.

Opponents argue that the restriction would force developers to build out of town, robbing the city of tax revenue.

Similarly, voters in Windsor -- a small town nestled in the Russian River grape-growing region of Sonoma County -- could tighten a cap on housing permits they adopted in 1997. Like other communities in Sonoma and Napa counties, the pioneers of California's slow-growth movement, Windsor has a growth boundary. But the initiative would determine how fast homes get built inside that urban limit line to ensure that roads, sewers and schools can keep pace, supporters say.

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