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Voters on Both Sides of Growth

Statewide, several new developments are decisively rejected. However, measures that would further tighten limits also lose.

November 07, 2002|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

In a split decision on urban sprawl, California voters rejected several large development projects Tuesday, but balked at imposing strict new limits on home building in cities around the state.

Voters blocked construction of thousands of new dwellings in Ventura and Alameda counties, but in a litmus test for just how far activists can push growth controls, second-generation ballot measures failed in Sonoma County, Berkeley and Simi Valley.

"Politically, this state is evenly divided about everything, and this shows we are deeply split about growth, too," said William Fulton, a Ventura-based planning expert.

In deciding a mixed bag of about two dozen local growth measures Tuesday, voters continued a ballot-box war that California pioneered three decades ago.

One common thread this time was that voters opted for the status quo by rejecting virtually every growth-related measure -- whether pro-growth or no-growth.

That could be the result of a low turnout statewide and a sagging economy, analysts said.

"People are still concerned about growth, but they're more concerned about economic security," said Bill Higgins, a director with the research arm of the California League of Cities. "When it comes down to food on the table or a pretty view out the window, voters tend to err on the side of food on the table."

In affluent Ventura County, which Fulton describes as the nation's "ground zero" for growth control, voters rose up against a Ventura hillside housing project and a canyon subdivision in Santa Paula.

The measures, backed by well-heeled campaigns, were crushed by about 2 to 1. Together, they would have added more than 3,600 homes.

Slow-growth leaders said the results reaffirm their faith in the strict anti-sprawl laws that Ventura County voters began adopting in 1995.

"Recently, the planning decisions at the ballot box have been better than the decisions by the elected officials," said Jim Procter, an attorney and opponent of the Santa Paula development.

But those who lost saw things differently.

"Clearly, ballot-box planning does not work," said Margaret Merryman, a backer of Ventura's hillside project. She stressed that it would have preserved 3,050 acres as open space while building on about 700 acres.

"They may feel like it works today, because they achieved their goal," she said of the project's opponents. "But what about the long-range ramifications?"

She said Ventura now could be presented with piecemeal building proposals with no coherence, unlike the six-neighborhood, 20-year plan she supported.

Apart from those victories, slow-growth activists stumbled in Simi Valley, where they lost a bid to further tighten growth boundaries, and in Ojai, where a traffic-related initiative lost overwhelmingly.

Results were also mixed in Northern California.

Alameda County had half a dozen measures on ballots in four cities, and slow-growth activists won most of them. That included a battle to preserve hillsides in Fremont, to stop housing on a 300-acre parcel in Pleasanton and to scale back a major hotel-and-restaurant proposal on the Berkeley waterfront.

Confusingly, both sides won in dueling initiatives in the island city of Alameda that centered on a 22-acre rail yard.

"Everything's still up in the air," said open-space advocate Jean Sweeney.

Pro-growth forces won in the town of Tiburon in Marin County, in Windsor in Sonoma County and in the Central Valley towns of Galt and West Sacramento.

The agricultural Central Valley generally has not embraced growth-control measures. But the losses in Marin and Sonoma counties were surprising, said Fulton, who analyzes growth trends in a monthly newsletter.

He compared them to Ojai's defeat of a growth measure.

"The towns are so small and anti-growth already, that the voters may not have seen the need to have extreme slow-growth measures," Fulton said.

Fulton said he is hopeful Tuesday's results will move advocates beyond fights about growth boundaries and get them to focus on how to accommodate new residents within existing borders.

That is what happened in Watsonville on Tuesday.

A ballot measure that represented a compromise between traditionally polarized groups -- preservationists and business interests -- passed with 60.2% of the vote.

"This was really a milestone ... and hopefully it will be a new trend statewide," said Chris Johnson-Lyons, a member of a wetlands protection group involved in the deal.

Peter Detwiler, a consultant to the state Senate Local Government Committee, said he sees the Watsonville compromise as a model of good growth planning.

"Ballot-box planning uses the old politics of confrontation and competition, which insists on winners and losers," Detwiler said. "Communities may get results, but they don't get solutions."

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