Ballot Box Reality

by Carolyn Chase


t could have been worse. Much worse. It usually is. As a matter of fact, things are about to get better for environmental policy and politics at the state level in California. How refreshing it will be to have gubernatorial appointees with a more serious commitment to environmental regulation and enforcement. The prospects of good appointments to the myriad of State Boards related to environmental protections including the State Resources Agencies, Regional Water Quality Control Boards and Coastal Commission have local activists looking beyond their losses.

Environmental activists may not have found the right combination of popular measures to curb urban sprawl here in San Diego, but there was a clear consensus on the need to deal with growth more effectively than in the past. Everyone seems to understand that another million people with another million cars simply will not fit and we cannot trust elected officials to handle it on their own. Voters want to have a say.

Locally and throughout the state, and even across the nation, growth was a hot topic. Nationally, voters approved measures to purchase more than $7 billion in land or development rights. Voters in Florida, Rhode Island, Oregon, other parts of California, and many other states approved measures aimed at sparing rural lands from development.

Locally, voters approved a wide range of projects and also supported measures that will allow them to vote on future projects. People may differ on the solutions, but there is a consensus that we must determine how to deal with growth by providing adequate infrastructure.

Escondido and Solana Beach voters overwhelmingly passed measures requiring future public votes on growth. Ignored in the monetary competition for attention, but not ignored by the voters, Prop E passed with a two-thirds majority in the City of San Diego. Future projects conferring private benefits and requiring expenditures of more than 10% of the City's General Fund must now be put to a vote.

I can definitely understand why "ballot box planning" is an anathema to rational people and just about anyone at the mercy of the system. The political arena is a lot like a gambling casino where you can spend a lot of money and never win. And you don't even get the benefits of having fun while you're taking the risks!

Since a key trait of developers is to reduce the risk, elections run counter to their liking. Elected officials don't like putting things to a vote, because it robs them of some of their power. They like to think that they were elected to make decisions, not to put things together and then have it judged by the people. Professional planners dislike the oversimplification required by the process that only lets someone vote yes or no on matters that take months or years of experience to understand.

But ballot box planning is here to stay. While elected officials, professional planners, landowners and developers will always rail against it, this election shows not only that the voters like it, but that they also can discriminate among different kinds of measures and projects.

But big money, more often than not, did translate into success. At the same time, projects which fail to negotiate seriously with community leaders and other volunteer environmental groups risk losing. It's terribly ironic to me that the projects (K & M) that were the most progressive, featured the best designed infrastructure, and were the best deals for the taxpayer had the hardest fights to win.

What will rise from the ashes of the Prop B's (Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative) failure? Now we all go back to the day-to-day work of attempting to solve problems and conflicts through the regular political processes.

Eric Anderson, past President of the San Diego Farm Bureau, and a staunch opponent of Prop B, was gracious in victory at election central and expressed his willingness to work toward more acceptable means of dealing with the conflicts between the environment and agriculture. Even while winning, he acknowledged that fighting at the ballot box was extremely difficult, expensive and basically a waste of resources on both sides. "There must be a better way and maybe we can work together to figure it out."

Pam Slater, Board of Supervisors, with much less style, couldn't resist gloating over her victory by lording it over me. "Boy, you sure picked the losing side on that one! Didn't you?" Ungracious in both victory and defeat - she then proceeded to rail at me about how she was totally opposed to putting in "high density" projects such as were being approved under Props K and M. My pointing out that 2-3 units per acre overall was not high density fell on deaf ears. It was one of those rare political moments where you got to see an elected official's real feelings about something - and what they feel about the people who disagree with them. In this case, it was not a pretty sight. Amazingly, the following day she then led the charge and voted to allow the 4S Ranch project to go in - with comparable densities in the same area. Go figure.

Elections are great learning experiences - especially about the people involved with the issues, their beliefs, their tactics and style. Elections are all about winning and losing with the broader public-at-large on a controlled timeline. Winning and losing can bring out both the best and the worst in people.

There was also a high percentage of people who would like to see growth just stopped - at least in their area. NIMBYISM is real, alive and understandable. If they would only understand how to help deal with it responsibly, rather than just opposing it and contributing to urban sprawl, we could make real progress here for the environment and quality of life.