In a March referendum election, El Dorado County voters upheld a revised county general plan and rejected a growth-control measure that would have tied growth to Highway 50 improvements. The election was another step toward a new general plan, as the county has been without a legal general plan for six years.

In other March election activity, voters in Palm Springs sent a decidedly mixed message by rejecting an initiative to prohibit most development in the hills above town while also rejecting a golf course resort planned in those same hills. In Beverly Hills, voters upheld a city decision to approve and subsidize an upscale resort project. In an advisory measure, Redondo Beach voters said they would like to see a 65-acre park replace a waterfront power plant.

El Dorado County has been trying to get a new general plan for nearly a generation. The county started an update process in 1989. A consultant completed a draft plan in 1992, and staff members prepared a second draft in 1994, only to have a new, pro-growth Board of Supervisors alter the plan again before adopting it in 1996. A collection of 18 homeowner and environmental groups and government agencies sued the county, arguing that the environmental impact report for the plan was inadequate. In 1999, a Sacramento County judge agreed with the general plan opponents in finding numerous problems with the EIR (see CP&DR Local Watch, March 1999, March 1996). The ruling ended the county's ability to approve discretionary projects, and required the county to get court ratification of any new general plan.

One year ago, El Dorado County voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative that was similar to the 1996 plan. Still, county officials used the 1996 plan as the base for a general plan that the Board of Supervisors adopted in July 2004. Opponents, who argued the plan permits too much growth in the mostly rural county, quickly qualified a referendum for the ballot.

The latest version of the plan continued to divide the Board of Supervisors, but the board majority, as well as U.S. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) and Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) urged voters to keep the plan. In the March election, 50.9% of voters backed Measure B to keep the plan.

The next step is for the county to get clearance from the court to implement the plan. However, the county can expect a courtroom fight from opponents. Attorney Stephan Volker, who represents the opponents, said the EIR for the general plan ignores impacts to high Sierra lakes that would serve as water sources, oak woodlands and wildlife habitat.

By a wider margin (60.5% to 39.5%), El Dorado County voters rejected Measure D, an initiative that would have prohibited new subdivisions until Highway 50 between Cameron Park and the Sacramento County line is widened to eight lanes. Most of that stretch of freeway is four lanes.

Voters in the City of Palm Springs also faced one referendum and one initiative. In the desert city, the referendum concerned the Palm Hills project, a resort of more than 100 houses and time-share units, a hotel and a golf course in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains at the southeastern edge of town. The City Council approved the project last year, but 55.6% of the electorate voted no on Measure C, overturning the council's decision.

The mountains above Palm Springs have remained almost entirely undeveloped, and the Sierra Club-backed Measure B sought to keep the hillsides that way. The measure would have established 40-acre minimum lot sizes for a 55-square-mile preservation zone along the city's southern and western borders. Besides the Palm Hills projects, two smaller housing developers are planned in the hills. Although 54.8% of voters rejected the hillside preservation initiative, environmentalists vowed to keep fighting in the courtroom and at the ballot box.

In Beverly Hills, voters backed a new hotel on North Beverly and North Canyon drives, in the Golden Triangle. In approving the Measure A referendum 53.5% to 46.5%, voters backed the Beverly Hills Garden Specific Plan, which the City Council approved last year.

The project calls for a 214-room Montage hotel topped by 25 condominiums. The upscale hotel would feature a spa, banquet facilities, a restaurant, ground floor retail shops, and a roof-top swimming pool and grill. Under an agreement with developer Athens Group, the city agreed to invest $33 million in an underground parking garage, a 33,000-square-foot public garden and a three-story civic building.

Athens Group, Montage and the owners of the existing Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, who opposed the project, spent more than $3 million on the election, equal to about $350 per vote.

Project opponents said the deal was bad for the city, in part because officials were not counting in the subsidy the $14 million worth of the public land involved in the project. They also complained because the Montage would be eight stories in an area currently limited to 45-foot-tall buildings and would bring additional traffic. Backers countered that the city-owned land would remain in public hands so it did not amount to a subsidy. They said the project would generate $5 million to $6 million annually in bed, sales and property taxes. They also said the project would replace empty and earthquake-damaged buildings.

The Redondo Beach advisory election concerned waterfront land owned primarily by AES, which operates a power plant on the site. Although the land does not appear to be available, voters were asked to choose between a 65-acre park, and a seaside development of 350 housing units, a hotel, some commercial space and a 16-acre park. About 55% of voters picked the big park.