Slow growth advocates won eight of 14 easily classified local land use ballot measures in the March primary election. However, development supporters won elections in some long-time strongholds of slow growth, including Napa County and the City of Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The results are a reversal from the primary election of 2000, when pro-growth forces won 11 of 15 local ballot measures.
California voters in March decided on total of 31 measures affecting private and public land development, including local regulations, specific projects, bonds and tax measures. In some of the most closely watched elections, voters backed big-box stores in two cities and rejected big boxes in three others. Orange County voters may have killed for good a proposed airport at the closed El Toro Marine Corps base. Elsewhere, voters appeared wary of bonds and taxes for public facilities, although Los Angeles voters narrowly approved the largest local bond on the March ballot.
Big box love-hate
The electorate in five cities considered measures related to big-box stores. Residents in the wealthy cities of Mountain View and Agoura Hills both said no to Home Depot. Mountain View voters rejected a precise plan amendment, while the Agoura Hills electorate approved an initiative that limits retail stores to 60,000 square feet — less than half the size of most new big boxes. Voters in the poorer cities of Calexico and East Palo Alto said yes to big boxes. In a referendum funded by Wal-Mart, voters in the Imperial County city of Calexico overwhelmingly rejected a labor-union backed ordinance that limited the amount of floor space a big-box store can devote to groceries. In East Palo Alto, voters narrowly approved a zone change and height variance for a proposed 320,000-square-foot Ikea, near University Avenue and Highway 101.
Voters in the Central Valley town of Reedley narrowly rejected two measures that would have accommodated a Wal-Mart at the entrance to town; however, the retailer had already withdrawn its application.
The Mountain View and East Palo Alto elections provide a glimpse of varying election dynamics. Although the two cities are only a few miles apart on the San Francisco Peninsula, they "really have very different constituencies," said Terry Christensen, chair of the political science department at San Jose State University.
"Mountain View can afford to say no. East Palo Alto, as you can understand, is desperate for tax revenues," Christensen said. Furthermore, he said, the East Palo Alto vote might have been another swipe at Palo Alto, one of the country's wealthiest cities, which lies right across the freeway. A new power center next to the Ikea site has already drawn many shoppers across the freeway, and Ikea will only add to East Palo Alto's retail drawing power.
Ikea proponents said the store would bring about $1.8 million annually in local sales tax revenue and offer 550 jobs averaging about $10 an hour. Those jobs are attractive to many East Palo Alto residents, Christensen said.
While Ikea's campaign strategy — which included limousine rides to the polls — paid off, Home Depot's development tactics backfired. After battling with city officials for years about building a store at the site of a former Emporium department store, Home Depot pulled its application only hours before the City Council was scheduled to consider it last fall. Instead, Home Depot drafted an amendment to the Americana Precise Plan to allow the store, then gathered signatures on an initiative. Home Depot spent more than $500,000 during the campaign.
"We're tired of how Home Depot has treated the town throughout this entire process," said Brian Avery, who runs a family construction company and was treasurer of the campaign against Home Depot. He said opponents scored points by noting that Home Depot used a Minnesota-based signature-gathering company, a Nebraska political consultant, and an Alabama phone bank.
Avery said the prominent site along El Camino Real was wrong for Home Depot. "The trucking operation and noise that Home Depot brings is the last thing a city wants in a gateway location and what is designated as a landmark property," he said.
Best of five on El Toro?
The proposed airport at El Toro in southern Orange County suffered a significant setback when voters approved an initiative that designated two-thirds of the 4,700-acre site for a "great park" and a nature preserve. The rest of the site could be developed with universities, museums, and office space under Measure W, which received 57% of the vote. The initiative — strongly backed by the City of Irvine and other cities near El Toro — specifically repeals a 1994 initiative that designated the base for development of a civilian airport. This was the fourth election regarding El Toro's future since 1994. The Orange County electorate cast two votes for an airport during the 1990s, and but has now voted against the airport in the two most recent elections.
Airport supporters, including 15 north Orange County cities, filed suit two weeks after the election, arguing that only the Board of Supervisors can decide how to reuse El Toro. But that argument may not serve airport supporters well because Fullerton City Councilman Chris Norby unseated incumbent county Supervisor and airport backer Cynthia Coad. Norby is an airport opponent and he will tip the Board of Supervisors 3-2 against an airport.
Further complicating the situation was an announcement the day after the election from the Navy, which owns El Toro. The Navy said it would decide by late April whether to sell the property rather than hand it over to a local entity. Selling the property would almost certainly foreclose development of an airport.
"Is an airport really dead? I think it is," said Steven Erie, professor of political science in the department of urban studies and planning at University of California, San Diego, and an advocate of an El Toro airport.
Although Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) has advocated selling off El Toro for some time, the Navy announcement shocked many people on both sides of the issue.
"It was almost like they [the Navy] were sick and tired of the whole deal," Erie said.
Development wins, loses in Northern California
In Napa County, more than 70% of voters approved a measure that allows owners of large agricultural parcels to develop farmworker housing on a portion of their land. In recent years, the county and grape growers have resorted to housing seasonal farmworkers in a tent village because of the local housing shortage. By a much narrower margin, Napa County voters approved a measure that allows development of a boat storage business near Lake Berryessa on property that had been designated for open space. Both of the Napa County measures were on the ballot because of a 1990 initiative that requires voter approval for development of farmland and open space.
In the Santa Cruz County town of Scotts Valley, voters upheld a City Council decision to approve development on the last large piece of undeveloped property. Under the approved plan, 167 acres of the 180-acre Glenwood site will remain open space or become a public park. The project calls for 49 houses on 11 acres and a 1.6-acre site for future development. Three years ago, voters rejected a proposal to build 145 houses on a portion of the same property.
In another pro-growth victory, San Joaquin County voters approved a measure allowing the county to develop up to 500 units per year of "low-rent" housing for 10 years. The election was required by Article 34 of the state constitution.
Slow-growth advocates won two victories in San Francisco. Voters there backed a ban on new billboards and approved a measure that eliminates the mayor's autonomy to appoint members of the Planning Commission and Board of Permit Appeals. Under the new system, the mayor will still make the majority of appointments to both panels, but the Board of Supervisors can reject any appointee. Mayor Willie Brown opposed the measure, which was seen as a way to decrease the influence of developers at City Hall.
In the East Bay city of San Ramon, voters approved a new general plan that had the support of slow-growth advocates. Developers tried, but failed, to block the measure from appearing on the ballot. The fight over development restrictions in San Ramon, however, is not likely to end with this election.
In the tiny City of San Juan Bautista, voters overturned an ordinance that set local standards for approval of development agreements. During the referendum campaign, opponents of the ordinance said city officials were trying to make the town into "another Hollister."
Local bond and tax measures on the March 5 ballot generally did not fare well. In the City of Los Angeles, a $600 million bond to build new and replacement police, fire and dispatching stations passed by only about 200 of the 331,000 votes cast. Voters in Oakland approved a $59 million zoo, museum and science center bond. In National City, a $6 million library bond won approval.
Voters in the East Bay Regional Park District failed to provide two-thirds approval for a parcel tax to fund park development and maintenance. A parcel tax for park development and recreational programs also failed in the high desert City of Adelanto. A parcel tax to build a swimming pool and locker rooms in the Ventura County city of Fillmore received 65% approval — but not the two-thirds vote required to pass.
In the Yolo County town of Winters, voters rejected a parcel tax to build a new library. Also in Yolo County, Woodland voters decided not to extend a half-cent sales tax to fund a flood control project.
A proposed half-cent sales tax in Kings County to build a new jail and expand the juvenile hall received widespread support, but not the necessary two-thirds vote. A tax on a power plant in Huntington Beach to raise money for city infrastructure failed badly.