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Land Use Election Activity Evinces State's East-West Division

Over the years, there has been quite a bit of talk about splitting California into two states. The idea is that Northern California and Southern California do not have a lot in common and should not have much to do with each other. The idea has not gotten much of anywhere. But maybe that's because the reality is somewhat different than people's perception. A glance at the November ballot in cities and counties throughout the state reveals that California is already two states. But it is not divided into North and South. Rather, it is divided into West and East — between the populous and crowded coastal counties and the land-rich but rapidly growing inland areas. In Western California, residents vote on all kinds of land-use issues on a regular basis. In the other California, they don't. By our count, there are at least 20 different local measures dealing with land-use issues on the November ballot. Of those, only three are in inland counties. And one of those is hardly a "growth control" measure at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite: The Nevada County property rights initiative would require the county to reimburse private property owners when their development proposals are rejected (see CP&DR, June 2002). The other 17 ballot measures are in coastal counties. For the most part, they represent a familiar mιlange of sundry local issues, and they are from a familiar set of communities where ballot-box zoning has become deeply embedded in the political culture. These include Ventura County, small cities between Los Angeles and San Diego such as San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside, and the usual Bay Area direct-democracy axes such as Berkeley and San Francisco. Increasingly, the measures that we see today are there because of measures that we saw yesterday. That is, they are the result of previous ballot measures requiring "subsequent voter approval" in order to make major land-use changes. The best example is in ballot-happy Ventura County, which has four land-use measures on local ballots. Three of the Ventura County measures fall into the "subsequent voter approval" category. In Simi Valley — adjacent to the San Fernando Valley — slow-growth activists are seeking to shrink the urban growth boundary imposed in 1998 as part of the famous group of SOAR (Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources) initiatives (see CP&DR, December 1998). In the semi-rural community of Santa Paula, a developer is trying to expand the SOAR boundary to include a large hillside property that is already inside the city's sphere of influence. In the beach town of Ventura, where the SOAR movement started in 1995, a hillside landowner is seeking voter approval for a development project that would set aside 80% of the property as open space. To make matters more confusing, the Ventura project does not require approval under SOAR because the property is already within the city's sphere of influence. But under a different ballot measure adopted last year, the project requires voter approval to extend water and sewer service into the hillside area. The fourth Ventura County measure is not on the ballot because of a previous ballot measure, but it will surely require more ballot measures if it passes. In the quaint town of Ojai, a local environmental group has placed a measure on the ballot that would require the city to turn down development projects if traffic impacts are not fully mitigated, and give increased power in the future to voters to decide such projects. It is difficult to know whether all this one-off citizen activism in coastal communities does more good than harm. After all, projects placed on the ballot pursuant to a previous initiative tend to be divorced — at least in public discussion — from the underlying planning policies of the community. And a political campaign does not necessary guarantee any more truth-telling in the public arena than the normal planning process before a city council. But once in a while, you run across a ballot measure that actually solves a problem — one that represents a comprehensive approach to a long-standing program in a way that is constructive and even inspiring. This year that ballot measure is the "Watsonville Orderly Growth and Agricultural Protection Initiative," which seeks to resolve a longstanding dispute over whether and how the poor farmworker town of Watsonville will expand onto surrounding farmland. Already overcrowded, Watsonville has been at loggerheads with Santa Cruz County environmentalists for more than a decade over expanding its urban area. Among other things, the city sought for many years to leap over Highway 1 onto the coastal plain, a move that the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission and the California Coastal Commission blocked. In 1999, however, business and environmental leaders in the Watsonville area got together to form a group called Action Pajaro Valley, a typical group of do-gooders intent on building civic consensus. Three years later, that group has agreed on a growth strategy and an urban growth boundary that will appear on the ballot in November. Under the plan, half of the expected residential development in Watsonville during the next 20 years will take place inside existing city limits. The ocean-side of Highway 1 remains out of bounds. The Watsonville initiative allows development in six new areas. All of these are inside a new urban growth boundary that will remain in places for 20 or 25 years unless future voters change the boundaries. There have been only a few ballot measures in the recent history of California that have resolved complicated land-use issues rather than simply making them more difficult and cumbersome to deal with. In fact, the last was probably a decade ago, when Pasadena voters threw out growth caps from the 1980s and replaced them with a new and more comprehensive General Plan (see CP&DR, December 1992). If the Watsonville measure passes, maybe it will inspire more community leaders in California — both elected politicians and civic leaders — to use the ballot.
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