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Spending Big at the Ballot Box to Build

October 31, 2005|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE, Calif. — A housing developer here in the Bay Area's bastion of slow growth is on track to spend nearly $68 per registered voter to pass a ballot measure that would expand the city's boundaries and add 2,450 new homes along one of Northern California's most congested highways.

By the time election day dawns Nov. 8, Pardee Homes is expected to have spent more than $3 million to convince just 43,598 registered voters that the company should be allowed to develop 1,400 acres of golden grassland surrounded by rolling hills off busy Interstate 580.

Pardee Homes' spending to put Measure D on the ballot and get it passed is a sign of just how much is at stake here in the Bay Area, still one of the nation's hottest housing markets. Similar measures -- though with smaller price tags -- are on the ballot in Antioch, Brentwood and Pittsburg, three other East Bay cities along busy Route 4 where developers are spending big to ease so-called urban growth boundaries and build homes in Contra Costa County.

If the measures pass, environmentalists warn Southern California, "You're next," said David Reid, a field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance, which opposes all four measures. "Developers, if they don't like the land-use plan in place, they're looking at the initiative process to change the land-use regulations so they can build what they want."

Paul Shigley, editor of the California Planning & Development Report, said that urban planning by ballot box is not that unusual, but that Pardee's level of campaign spending to sway a city historically opposed to growth is "incredible."

If Pardee's spending pays off and Measure D is approved, "it might be a lesson for developers in other parts of the state," Shigley said. "If it happens in Livermore, you might try it elsewhere ... [and] it says how much money is at stake: 2,400 units; multiply that by $600,000 to $700,000 apiece. That's adult money."

Pardee's campaign spending has gone to write the initiative, hire signature-gatherers to get it on the ballot, bring in consultants to guide the company's political strategy and buy direct mail, television, radio and newspaper ads. "Today, elections cost a lot of money," said Carlene Matchniff, Pardee's vice president of community development, who figures her company will spend between $2.5 million and $3 million on the effort to build in an area called North Livermore.

According to financial disclosure filings, the developer had spent $2.69 million by Oct. 22, nearly three weeks before the election; the Friends of Livermore Committee, which opposes the measure, had spent about $140,000 in the same period. In contrast, Mayor Marshall Kamena said he expects his reelection campaign will cost about $35,000. Growth has been contentious in Livermore, which is about 45 miles east of San Francisco, for decades. North Livermore, where Alameda County considered a plan for 12,500 homes, has been a target of developer yearning for at least 10 years, Shigley said.

In 2000, voters in the county passed so-called urban growth boundaries that restrict cities and unincorporated communities in large swaths of the region.

Changes to those boundaries have to be approved by voters. Protecting the unincorporated North Livermore area was a major focus of the effort, which was supported by the Sierra Club. Since then, the Livermore City Council has approved its own urban limit line.

In a sign of how controversial Measure D is, Assistant City Manager Jim Piper directed inquiries to a dense, 304-page online analysis but said he "would not go on the record beyond the report."

It is the central issue in his own campaign for reelection, said Kamena, who has donated money to help stop the measure and believes that its passage would signal to the building industry that "we don't really need to look at local control. We only need to ride in on our horses with dollars flying everywhere, promise things to special-interest groups and we've bought the place."

His opponent, David Mertes, supports the measure, because three of the major components of the proposed Pardee development "are high on the priority list for Livermore residents," he said in a written statement. " ... housing for families with differing needs and incomes, a site for a third high school, and a Community Sports Park."

During a prickly televised forum on the measure last week, Matchniff defended the project as a boon to the city, arguing that Pardee would pay the city $130 million more than the normal developers fees to fund various amenities and that 750 acres of the project would be set aside as an open space preserve.

In addition, 15% of the units would be affordable, 10% would be senior housing, and the development would improve -- not worsen -- traffic, she said, because it would bring homes closer to the region's jobs.

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