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In response to state laws, cities are pursuing contradictory local initiatives that put them “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
At the heart of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to ease the state’s housing crisis is an effort to help developers leapfrog many of the local ordinances that can make building virtually impossible.
But cities across the state are hoping to use the November ballot to institute even more restrictions on new development, setting the stage for a showdown that could help determine the future of housing in California.
Experts say the standoff stems from both state policy decisions and a surging economy that’s trying to meet housing demand. The direct conflict between cities and the state has ramped up in recent years, and is coming to a head.
In San Diego County, Del Mar is putting forth a ballot measure that would require residents to vote on developments that would add more density than allowed by existing city rules, much like Proposition A, a measure nearby Encinitas passed in 2013.
The coastal cities of Del Mar, Costa Mesa and Santa Monica all have similar initiatives on this year’s ballot.
In the Bay Area, a Cupertino measure would amend a document laying out the city’s planning vision to limit development, while one in Gilroy would create an urban boundary, outside of which all development would need voter approval.
In June, El Dorado County had a pair of such initiatives on the ballot – one passed and the other failed. In Los Angeles, a similar measure didn’t manage to qualify for this year’s ballot, but has been pushed to March 2017.
These measures all have something in common – they hand land use decisions, which are normally left to elected officials, to voters. These initiatives are often called “slow growth” or “no growth” because they tend to slow down and discourage development.
“Whenever you have development, you have conflicting viewpoints of whether it’s appropriate,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities, an association of cities in the state that often lobbies on their behalf in Sacramento. “And sometimes people feel strongly enough – sometimes those people are developers, sometimes they’re citizens’ groups – to involve the voters to either change the rules, write totally new rules or give voters more control over development decisions.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, these initiatives were common. That’s when propositions in Escondido and Solana Beach required voter approval for their major city planning documents. According to research from Solimar Research Group, voters weighed in on over 600 land use ballot initiatives between 1986 and 2000, the majority of which aimed to slow growth and development.
San Diego County had 80 of those initiatives, the highest number of all counties statewide.
McKenzie and Roger Caves, professor of city planning at San Diego State University and author of “Land Use Planning: The Ballot Box Revolution,” both say it seems like the trend is back.
“I pity the poor postal workers that are going to have to carry around November’s ballots,” Caves said. “The initiative is being used as a battering ram to tear down legislative hurdles, and you’re starting to see more planning issues coming out again.”
Caves, McKenzie and local officials where these initiatives are taking place say there are likely two reasons. One is the economy. During the recession, there was little to no development in many cities. The economic recovery has brought back new projects, and many old ones approved before the recession that went away when financing became scarce.
All that has suddenly brought what seems like a lot of new development into neighborhoods that don’t want much change.
“The value of land and stakes have increased, especially on the coast,” McKenzie said. “And people care passionately about the way their communities look and the way they are developed.”
To a lesser extent, they said, the trend follows the state-level push for more housing.
Brown’s proposed housing plan would exempt developments that include a certain percentage of low-income units from detailed local review. A series of bills put forth by the Legislature are also aimed at increasing the supply of both low-income and market-rate housing.
McKenzie said he expects the state’s actions will spur even more initiatives in the future.
“What I think goes on in Sacramento, most people aren’t aware of, versus what happens in their city halls,” said McKenzie. “Some very tuned-in people may know that there are proposals from the governor to streamline the permitting process and peel back levels of environmental protections. But if the Legislature ends up passing bills that end up taking away discretion from local land use decisions, I think – and I’ve had many people tell me —that the voters will be very upset.”
Santa Monica might be the bellwether.
Armen Melkonians, who helped write Santa Monica’s initiative, said state demands for increased housing density forced Santa Monica city officials to ignore residents’ concerns during the planning and review process for projects – which led him to pursue the initiative.
“If you promise to protect Santa Monica and not approve big development projects, just to get elected, turn around and take it back, you’re going to have a problem,” Melkonians said.
Santa Monica’s measure would require most developments over two stories to get voter approval. There would be exemptions for projects with 100 percent low- or moderate-income housing or ones that are located in areas already zoned for high-density development.
Melkonians said he used Encinitas’ Proposition A as a framework, but worked closely with an attorney to make sure nothing in the initiative conflicts with state law, so Santa Monica could avoid some of the legal issues Encinitas has faced.
Santa Monica’s analysis of the initiative said it would delay many developments, and undermine the city’s future by encouraging developers to produce small projects or reuse existing buildings that wouldn’t trigger a public vote. It might just discourage developers from building in the city at all, the report said.
A Costa Mesa voter initiative has the same concern: density.
“Well, what’s happening is very high-density housing and increasing densities in commercial (development),” said Jay Humphrey, an initiative proponent. “To get back the control, we wrote an initiative.”
The Costa Mesa initiative would give voters the power to approve developments that increase total residential units, square feet of commercial space or daily car trips above a certain threshold. It also requires voter approval for changes in zoning codes or planning documents.
Humphrey said he looked at other measures and policies along the coast, in Redondo Beach, Newport Beach and Malibu, but those were either not right for Costa Mesa or didn’t hold up in court.
He said the initiative was written before the governor began trying to take more action on the housing front in Sacramento, but that the state’s push for more housing means more density, which his initiative aims to combat.
“A lot of the high-density stuff is being pushed into coastal cities,” Humphrey said. “And a lot of coastal cities have been built out by now.”
It’s not just happening on the coast. In Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World” at the southern tip of the Bay Area, residents say they’re defending agricultural land as people sprawl out in search of affordable housing.
That pressure has been especially acute since the economic recovery, said Carolyn Tognetti, one of the backers of an initiative there that would set up an urban growth boundary, encouraging development within the boundary and requiring voter approval for anything outside.
“We’re not anti-growth, but when it comes to prime farm land, we get up in arms,” said Tognetti. “This kind of thing for us takes the politicians out of it and gives the power back to the people. There are no guarantees a development won’t happen, but it gives people the chance to vote on it.”
Sandra Genis, a Costa Mesa City Council member, said the initiatives are emblematic of a growing wariness of government, especially since the recession.
“The middle class is under a lot of pressure financially, and middle-class people, the bulk of their life value is in their homes,” Genis said. “There’s a lot of mistrust and dissatisfaction.”
Not everyone in these cities echo these sentiments, though.
Leonora Yetter, a lawyer living in Santa Monica, said the initiative concerns her. Yetter said she sees a housing crisis in Santa Monica and believes slowing growth will only decrease affordability.
“When it’s to the point where it’s so unaffordable, it’s really detrimental to the city,” Yetter said. “It’s detrimental to the culture and the demographics. And I know these problems aren’t fixed overnight by just building new housing, but through the process of making it harder and harder to build housing, they’re exacerbating all these problems.”
Yetter said she doesn’t think the proponents of the initiative are representative of all the city’s residents.
“That’s the concern about a proposition like this,” she said. “It’s being brought by a certain number of people who are not necessarily the majority of the city. They are a vocal group.”
Even in Encinitas, where Proposition A passed in 2013, that measure passed with only about 52 percent of the vote and voter turnout was low – only about a third of registered voters in the city cast votes on the measure.
The proposed initiative in Del Mar would require voters to approve large developments, or projects that require a zoning change, an increase in development restrictions or that let developers build more homes on a given plot than they normally could in exchange for more affordable units.
Arnold Wiesel, one of the measures’ proponents, said it isn’t a reaction to economic conditions or state housing legislation.
“This is a small community where the community is involved, likes to be involved and appreciates its town,” Wiesel said. “The community wants a little more involvement than just three out of five City Council members.”
Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden said it’s a little more complicated, that the initiative was spurred by neighborhood opponents of a particular project, the Watermark Del Mar, a condominium complex planned southwest of the Del Mar fairgrounds.
The city’s Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott also attributes the initiative to the Watermark project and to the current economic cycle in general.
“More projects are beginning to heat up and are being proposed in communities,” Sinnott said. “It is highlighting the conflict between state mandates and local community concerns. After this goes down the road a ways, it will be interesting to see what happens. If the Legislature sees local initiatives putting up roadblocks, what will they do?”
Worden, who worked as a land use attorney prior to his City Council stint and helped write similar ballot measures throughout the county a couple of decades ago, said residents might not directly know they’re unhappy with state policies, but they are and these initiatives are a response to that.
“We’ve had laws on the books in California for decades that are supposed to help provide affordable housing, but the bottom line is we haven’t done a good job of providing actual housing on the ground,” he said. “So the burden is on the private sector to provide housing for all economic segments and the private market works through density.”
And density, Worden said, doesn’t work for cities like Del Mar.
“That may work in inland areas with large populations and cheaper land,” he said. “But in Encinitas and Del Mar, if you increase density by 20 to 30 percent, it won’t necessarily lower prices. Communities see that at a gut-check level. They’re seeing traffic and community character impacts and no affordable housing. They only see the downside, so they say, ‘Let’s take back the power.’”
While Worden said he’s not in favor of the state’s approach to providing more affordable housing, the Del Mar initiative – and in particular, its conflict with state laws – concerns him. He and Sinnott cited the legal troubles Encinitas has had coming up with a state-mandated housing plan.
“The initiative is against state law,” Sinnott said. “It puts the city in jeopardy because it either tries to comply with a local initiative or tries to comply with state law. So you’re kind of between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
According to an analysis done by the city, the measure would specifically require that strategies intended to make the city comply with state housing laws be subject to voter approval. Yet if the city doesn’t follow those state laws, it can become ineligible for certain state and federal funds or face legal action.
“This is contrary to the State Housing Law and represents a significant barrier to compliance with the City’s affordable housing obligations,” the report says.
Worden said he’s working with other City Council members to find alternatives to ensure Del Mar meets state housing law, even if the initiative passes.
“I’d like to think all the cities could get together and make the governor realize that these policies that work in Los Angeles aren’t going to work in Del Mar or Encinitas,” Worden said. “But in the meantime, I’m not going to work on pushing that rock up the hill. I’m just going to make sure my city has a Plan B.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this post attributed research about earlier land use ballot initiatives to the California Institute for Local Government. That group used research from the Solimar Research Group in its report.