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Developers’ Foe Won’t Seek Reelection in Costa Mesa

Times Staff Writer

Dave Wheeler, a co-author of the countywide slow-growth initiative and the man described by advocates of controlled growth as their only ally on the Costa Mesa City Council, said Sunday that he would not seek reelection.

The announcement sent shock waves through the ranks of slow-growth supporters but delighted developers, who may have an easier time getting their plans approved for an estimated $1-billion corridor of high-rise office buildings along the San Diego Freeway.

Wheeler said he would not seek a second four-year term because he wanted to avoid a bitter and costly campaign, predicting that development interests would amass a $250,000 war chest to defeat him.

“If I were in the election, it is reasonable to believe that developers would spend a great deal of money to defeat me because of the effectiveness I have shown in examining their programs,” Wheeler said. “I have gotten them to slow down or scale back their plans, and have gotten them to pay for improvements, ranging from block walls to protect residents from noise to better and wider streets--things they otherwise would not have paid for.”

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Wheeler also said he wanted to spend more time on his law practice, which he said brings in only $23,000 a year. Add to it the $7,000 a year he earns as a councilman, a job at which he spends about half his time, and he said he makes about $30,000 a year.

“My contemporaries are making about $100,000 annually,” said Wheeler, 32, who runs a one-man divorce and personal injury law firm in Newport Beach.

Wheeler was elected to the council in 1984 by a coalition of homeowner groups opposed to massive high-rise developments they said were destroying the suburban quality of their city of 86,000.

Sandy Genis, vice president of Costa Mesa Residents for Responsible Growth, said Sunday, “I’m disappointed with his decision not to run, and I hope that we can talk him into reconsidering.”

Developers responded to news of Wheeler’s announcement with cautious satisfaction, apparently because they will have to continue to work with him until he leaves office.

“It has been difficult to communicate with him because he feels that anyone on the development side is not representing the public good,” said Bruce Nestande, a former Orange County supervisor who now serves as a vice president of Arnel Development Co., which is attempting to build the $90-million Metro Pointe development in north Costa Mesa over Wheeler’s opposition.

“I recall that one time I tried to talk with him about a transportation problem in north Costa Mesa and he told me, ‘I don’t talk to developers,’ ” Nestande said.

Asked if he were looking forward to Wheeler’s departure from the council, Nestande said, “I think that being able to talk to someone with an open mind will be a plus.”

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Wheeler said he does not meet with Nestande and other developers “because they want to meet behind closed doors. Nestande could say anything he wants to say to me in a public study session or council meetings.

“I have this restriction on all my dealings with special interests,” Wheeler said. “Because to me, it is abhorrent that most of what goes on in city government goes on in back rooms in meetings between local officials and developers.”

Peter Buffa, a member of the four-person pro-development majority on the City Council, said of Wheeler: “Dave strongly states his views and particular philosophy. We have had our share of differences, and Dave is not shy.”

With Wheeler out of the race for council, Buffa said, “the campaign should be a lot less lively.”

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But Buffa, who received strong financial backing from C. J. Segerstrom & Sons in his successful 1984 bid for a City Council seat, dismissed Wheeler’s claim that developers would have thrown $250,000 into a campaign to defeat a Wheeler-led slate in the November election.

“It’s silly for anyone to spend $250,000 on a City Council race,” Buffa said.

Malcolm Ross, head of planning and design for Segerstrom and one who has sparred with Wheeler in recent weeks as the City Council took action on the company’s $400-million Home Ranch project, said no decisions have been made about financial support in council elections.

“We have no idea how much money will be necessary for this campaign because it will be much later this year,” Ross said.

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Wheeler’s announcement was the second blow to slow-growth forces in Costa Mesa in recent days. The Costa Mesa city clerk ruled Friday that a city slow-growth initiative, modeled after the countywide Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative, had failed to qualify for the city’s June ballot.

Jay Humphrey, a leader of the petition drive, said his homeowners’ group, Costa Mesa Residents for Responsible Growth, had gathered only 5,400 signatures of registered voters, short of the 6,000 needed to qualify for the June ballot. But enough signatures had been gathered to place the measure on the November ballot, Humphrey said, because only 4,600 were needed.

Humphrey said his group took comfort from their belief that the turnout will be greater in November, which he said would be beneficial for the slow-growth position.

Humphrey also saw a silver lining in the cloud left by Wheeler’s announcement. “This will show the people how much the City Council is stacked against them,” he said. “I think this will cause people to come out to the polls in record numbers to show how they really feel about the need to slow growth down in Costa Mesa.”

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