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Slow-Growth Wears Short Coattails

The popular stand in San Juan, Newport and Fullerton doesn't guarantee victory for its backers.

November 07, 2002|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Mark Nielsen's message of preserving the small-town character of San Juan Capistrano got through to voters, who overwhelmingly rejected two large development projects Tuesday.

But the messenger? He didn't quite make the same connection. Nielsen, running for a two-year council seat on a slow-growth platform, fell to businessman Joe Soto, 48.7% to 38.9%.

The mixed election day message was similar in Newport Beach, where voters adopted one of the state's toughest development laws two years ago. But Tuesday, voters rejected three of the four candidates running under the so-called Greenlight banner, including the author of the slow-growth initiative.

In Fullerton, council candidates who campaigned on a platform of preserving 510 acres of the West Coyote Hills area were defeated in the city election, even though the land is one of the city's last pieces of undeveloped property.

West Coyote Hills is set to be developed with 760 homes, an elementary school and stores. Construction would be clustered around pockets of coastal sage scrub, a habitat of the endangered California gnatcatcher. The developer might be asked to create an endowment to help build, maintain and operate a nature center on the site.

"I think the way the voting went, the people feel that we will act in their best interest," said Fullerton Councilman Don Bankhead, who was reelected Tuesday. "But I don't feel that the candidates' defeat is any indication that the community at large supports more housing and development."

Though San Juan Capistrano's Nielsen said he was disappointed that voters didn't rally behind his council campaign, he was pleased that they turned down an upscale housing development that included a new high school and rejected the idea of selling city property to retail giant Home Depot. The Whispering Hills/high school project was defeated 56.6% to 43.4%. The Home Depot measure, which was an advisory vote, was quashed 69% to 31%.

"It proves the citizens place an extraordinarily high value on retaining the character of our community," said Nielsen, a software executive whose citizens group led the campaign against Whispering Hills. "And spending hundreds of thousands of dollars [on campaign ads] isn't going to change that."

Mike Eggers, another preservationist who worked to defeat the Whispering Hills project narrowly, also lost his bid to win a four-year council seat. Incumbents Wyatt Hart, Diane Bathgate and David M. Swerdlin were reelected. Eggers finished fourth, 126 votes behind Swerdlin.

San Juan Hills High School, which was scheduled to open in 2005, would have been the town's first public high school in more than 40 years.

Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming said the project will be delayed indefinitely.


Times staff writer Vivian LeTran contributed to this report.

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