Speaker's Commission
State Seal

And now -- Land-use planning at the ballot box
By Peter Schrag (Published Aug. 18, 1999)

When it comes to land-use policy, it's been said, the only thing Americans hate more than sprawl is density. For an illustration, consider three voter initiatives that will be on the ballot in the East Bay this November, and another up next year. And more are on the way elsewhere.

The four, all sponsored by CAPP, Citizens Alliance for Public Planning, are designed not only to preserve agricultural land and open space, but also to slow urban infill in the cities of Danville, Livermore, Pleasanton and San Ramon. All impose sharply reduced levels of development and require local officials to get voter approval for any project that exceeds them.

The four measures obviously reflect growing levels of frustration with city officials and planners who have been far too prone to accommodate developers and, in the process, have generated intolerable levels of air pollution, traffic congestion and other stress on public services. The object, said Stan Erickson, a CAPP leader, is not to stop growth, but to force developers to provide for the infrastructure -- the roads, water systems, sewers and schools that new growth requires.

More broadly, however, they are also part of a national trend toward ballot-box planning: the use of referendums and initiatives to impose urban growth boundaries, finance parkland purchases, impose "smart growth" and lock up land preservation policies so they can't be touched by planners and politicians. Last year, according to a study by resource consultant Phyllis Myers for the Brookings Institution, state and local voters in 31 states approved 72 percent of the record 240 conservation measures that made it to the ballot.

Not all were voter initiatives -- some were no more than bond proposals to buy parkland that were put on the ballot by state or local agencies -- but nearly all were the result of intensifying public pressure. Several passed last November in Ventura and Santa Clara counties established open-space greenbelts that cannot be touched without another vote of the electorate. What began a generation ago with Proposition 13 and the tax revolt seems to be turning into a principle of land-use planning as well.

As in many other parts of California, where growth is outrunning the carrying capacity of the infrastructure, CAPP's leaders have ample causes for complaint. In an attempt to collect signatures to block a project in Danville last year, activists complained that the developer "arranged for goon squads to shadow the signature collectors at markets and stores ... hired phony signature collectors" and engaged in other dirty tricks.

But when voter frustration and direct democracy take over, the solutions tend to be as hard-nosed as the problems are exasperating. In the case of the CAPP initiatives, that's engendered ballot proposals too inflexible and restrictive even for some environmental groups.

In a decision earlier this month, the Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area organization committed to the preservation of open space and a principal advocate of urban growth boundaries, voted to stay neutral on the CAPP proposals. "Local land-use initiatives," said Greenbelt, "need to not only limit irresponsible development, they must also encourage smart growth: attractive affordable, transit-accessible, infill opportunities. ... The proposed CAPP initiatives do not strike this critical balance."

The CAPP people respond that they are not NIMBYs -- people whose complaint really amounts to "not in my back yard." As one of the leaders in Livermore, Donna Cabanne, put it, "we've provided more than our fair share" of new residences for the region, including low-income housing. Severe asthma problems plague children, she said, schools are overcrowded and traffic is intolerable. Even so, there's enough new housing on the drawing boards for north Livermore to increase Livermore's population, now 72,000 people, by half.

Myers points out that because of such problems, voters everywhere are asking for a larger role in planning for open space. In El Dorado County last fall, voters handily approved a growth control initiative intended to require developers to pay all of the costs resulting from the increased traffic that their developments generate.

The kind of citizen engagement Myers talks about is admirable. But local action in planning and controlling growth is often like squeezing a balloon. Even with the proposed countywide restrictions that CAPP leaders are now discussing, the development blocked in Livermore likely will go to the next town or the next county -- in this case, San Joaquin County, where Tracy has become a bedroom not just for the East Bay, but also for Silicon Valley, bringing with it a three-county trans-Bay commute that's one of the most horrendous imaginable.

And here, one person's virtuous civic act becomes another's NIMBYism. "If more development does occur in Tracy," says a CAPP handout, "at least Livermore residents will not have to provide their sewer, water and schools."

Growth management and traffic or pollution abatement don't make much sense if they don't have a regional perspective: Thinking globally and acting locally are not enough. By now it's become a truism to say that the state badly needs to foster the regional institutions to make it possible.

Designating parkland and greenbelts as part of a considered public planning process is as old as municipal government. But any rigid, voter-imposed prohibition on the ability of planners and government to act can only distort the process and produce a whole new set of unintended consequences.

For two decades we've been painfully learning about such consequences in the fiscal realm. Will we have to learn it again in land-use planning?

[ top of page ]

Home | About the Commission | Commissioner Biographies
News | Press Coverage | Testimony | Agendas
Meeting Schedules | Minutes | Links

Speaker's Commission on State/Local Government Finance
in collaboration with the
Metropolitan Forum Project
811 West Seventh Street, Suite 900
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 629-9019