One of the cardinal rules of ballot-box zoning in California is that ballot measures beget ballot measures. That is, once the concept of making land-use decisions gets embedded in the local political culture, there is no getting rid of it — it only burrows deeper and deeper into the political landscape.
That entrenchment is partly because some ballot-box zoning actually requires voter approval for subsequent changes, and it's partly because, over time, people come to expect that they -- and not their elected officials -- are the ones who set land use policy.
Nowhere has the ballot-box zoning phenomenon played itself out so intensely as in Ventura County. The people in this affluent county north and west of Los Angeles — home to both high-tech companies and low-tech agriculture -- have been making land-use policy on election day since at least 1980, when Thousand Oaks voters first imposed an annual restriction on residential building permits. Most recently, Ventura County set the pace for the state with the passage of the Save Open space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiatives, which created a set of urban growth boundaries for virtually the entire county that can be altered only by voter approval.
This fall, Ventura County will again lead the state into a new phase of ballot-box zoning with a frenzied but fragmented battle both to alter and to protect the existing land use policies on a city-by-city basis. It appears no fewer than four measures will appear on city ballots in Ventura County. Each one of them is interesting individually, but added together they appear to represent an entire "western front" in the ballot-box zoning war.
In the cities of Simi Valley and Santa Paula, ballot measures will seek to alter existing SOAR boundaries. But in Ventura and Ojai, voters will be asked to deal with development issues in areas designated for growth. This highlights a whole new aspect of ballot-box zoning — requiring voters not only to approve projects outside urban boundaries, but also to approve projects inside the boundaries.
The two SOAR amendments are likely to be major battles in and of themselves. In Simi Valley, pro-SOAR activists will attempt to shrink the existing growth boundary so that five different pieces of property, including at least two that are prime for development, will be placed outside the growth boundary. Among the parcels that would be removed are the 2,880-acre Alamos Canyon, which landowner Unocal hopes to develop with homes and business parks, and the 239-acre Marr Ranch, which has a pending development proposal for more than 200 homes. City officials are angry that SOAR activists have gone back to the ballot to remove these parcels from the inventory of developable sites. But the SOAR leaders say they were pressed for time during the original campaign in 1998 and compromised to place these parcels inside the boundary even though they did not want to.
Meanwhile, in Santa Paula, landowners will attempt to expand the SOAR boundary to include a large hillside property — the 5,400 Adams Canyon area — on which Pinnacle Homes wants to build more than 2,000 housing units as well as commercial development. The property had previously been included in the city's general plan, but was removed by the voters when they passed Santa Paula's original SOAR boundary in November 2000. Santa Paula is already deeply split over a U.S. Department of Justice voting rights lawsuit that may cause the creation of City Council districts to ensure the town's majority Latino population receives representation. Santa Paula appears to be fissuring further over the Adams Canyon project. Some citizen activists want more high-end hillside homes in this generally low-income farm town; others want to focus on revitalization in the existing community.
In Ventura, voters will decide whether to permit a 1,300-unit project on about 5,000 acres to move forward. But to make things more confusing, the land in question is already inside the SOAR boundary, and the voters will not be deciding whether to expand or shrink that boundary. Rather, they will be voting on whether to extend water and sewer service into a hillside area already inside the SOAR boundary — a requirement imposed by Ventura voters last November. Though inside the city's sphere of influence, the land owned by Lloyd Properties was not included in the original 1995 SOAR initiative for Ventura because that measure dealt only with agricultural land. Although it is undeveloped and zoned by the county for open space, the property remains designated in the city's general plan for hillside development that could — in theory, at least — accommodate up to 8,000 housing units.
Finally, in the tiny and quaint town of Ojai, voters will decide whether to require subsequent voter approval on virtually every residential project in town. Ojai is one of only two cities in Ventura County without a SOAR boundary, largely because the conventional thinking was that the city's politics are already so slow-growth that additional restrictions were not necessary. The proposed initiative would require voter approval for projects that create any increase in traffic that is not mitigated by the project approval process.
Proposed by a local environmental group, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, the initiative would seek not only to require full mitigation of traffic problems, but also to require voter approval for the projects and for the mitigation. The initiative has raised the ire of city officials -- so much so that they have sued to try to knock it off the ballot, which is a very difficult task. They argue that the measure will create internal inconsistencies in the general plan. The citizen group and the city have been tangling recently over the city's housing element.
There is a certain way in which the rest of the state might simply view Ventura County as kooky for ballot-box zoning. After all, most other parts of the state do not use ballot-box zoning, and the passage of Ventura County's SOAR initiatives did not stimulate the statewide movement that some people predicted.
Still, land use ballot measures have become common in coastal urban areas under extreme growth pressure (see CP&DR, October 2000). The coming four-front war in Ventura County — with different issues being dealt with by different voters — suggests that the future will be more complicated anywhere that ballot-box zoning has taken hold. Every time voters make land-use decisions on the ballot, we can be sure that more ballot measures will appear in the future.
Everybody always loves to complain about the California Environmental Quality Act, but despite all the complaining we don't now much about how effective it really is and what all the CEQA activity adds up to. >>read more
Since Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement a few weeks ago, he has been hailed - and reviled - as the Court's "great liberal voice" of the past couple of decades. But especially in land use, Stevens' legacy rests with not only his ardent support of government regulatory power, but also his skill in mustering five votes, on a pretty conservative court, in favor of aggressive use of land use regulation.
The old saying in government is that in order to understand what's going on, you've got to follow the money. In local planning throughout California, that's becoming increasingly easy to do. Local government revenues - property tax, sales tax, development fees, redevelopment funds - are in steep decline.
The distance between California's growing budget problems and California's ambitious environmental protection agenda continues to increase.
The consequences of the state's chronic budget deficit – currently $20 billion per year or more with no end in sight – continue to chew up everything and everybody in its path: local governments, transit agencies, the prison system, welfare recipients, school districts.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a Republican with a twist. As the governor enters his final year – attempting to deal both with economic woes and an ambitious environmental agenda – it appears that nothing has changed. He is going after the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in his own way. It's legacy time for the governor. For better or worse, the Schwarzenegger approach to skinning CEQA may be part of his legacy.
If predictions about the impact of global warming are even half right, a lot of us are going to be quite literally swimming – or at least wading – through our daily lives in 30 or 40 years. Yet in the current debate about how the state should approach "adaptation" strategies, all parties are crouched in their typically unhelpful postures.
Sometime this year or next year, Congress will probably pass a climate change bill that tries to mimic SB 375's link between transportation patterns and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And the bill will probably generate billions of dollars by capping emissions and placing a market value on them. But it is doubtful Congress use the money to invest in the transportation improvements and land use changes required to reduce automobile travel.
California government never fails to amuse. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears poised to eliminate his own Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and nobody – not even the state's planners – is rushing to the beleaguered office's defense. Yet throughout Sacramento, vultures are hovering, because while OPR itself may not be worth saving, the carcass appears to have value.
The conventional wisdom is that Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't make a whole lot of difference, because there's not much meaningful ideological distance between her and her predecessor, Justice David Souter. So, the party line goes, the court will still be stuck in the familiar 5-4 or 4-5 split, depending on how Justice Anthony Kennedy is feeling that day. But there's a debate brewing as to whether that's really the case in land use and property rights law.
Now that the age of greenhouse gas emissions reduction is upon us, I think there's an important point worth making: Government agencies in California can try to comply with SB 375 – or they can focus on reducing driving. There is a lot of overlap between the two, but they are not exactly the same thing.
There's never been a weirder time to try to do planning in California.
On the one hand, the state has made climate change a major priority – and it's driving local government efforts in a hundred different ways, ranging from greenhouse gas analyses in environmental documents to switching out light bulbs in city corporation yards.
On the other hand, the state is cutting back all over the place because of the ever-more-dismal budget crisis. And this is going to make it hard for local governments to meet the requirements the state is laying out.
SB 375 is now law, but another year and a half will pass before the California Air Resources Board adopts the follow-up numerical regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This puts California's cities and counties in a pretty big bind: How can they adopt plans for the future that will conform with the climate change law if they don't know what standard they are going to have to comply with?