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Modest Slow-Growth Bid Lags in Riverside County

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Supporters of a slow-growth initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot in Riverside County have no campaign headquarters and the leader of the campaign has no home telephone.

This may help to explain why the measure, which appeared to have broad public support a few months ago, now seems to be headed for defeat.

In the face of heavy attacks from their opponents--attacks that have been lavishly financed by builders and developers--supporters of Measure B, the Riverside County “growth management initiative,” have been largely silent.

There are few mailing pieces and no billboards, no phone banks or precinct walkers, few public appearances and little publicity about what was thought to be one of the strongest slow-growth campaigns in the state.

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As a result, voter support for the measure has dropped from 65% or 70% several months ago to less than 50% today, according to polls conducted by Residents for Responsible Planning, which opposes the initiative.

“We’ve managed to get the ‘yes’ vote under 50% and we’re working to soften it some more,” said Frank Wilson, campaign manager for the opposition. “We’re at about the same position today as the ‘No on A’ people in Orange County were two weeks before the election.”

Wilson was referring to a slow-growth initiative that was defeated in Orange County last June by 56% to 44% after starting out with strong support.

If opponents can repeat this success next month in Riverside County and in San Diego, where slow-growth initiatives will be on both the city and county ballots, the momentum of the statewide slow-growth movement will have been stalled.

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Slow-growth sentiment, which has been strong for years in the city of Riverside, has spread throughout the 7,300-square-mile county as waves of Orange County and Los Angeles County residents have moved to the Inland Empire in search of cheaper housing.

County population has soared to more than 950,000, with annual increases of more than 6%. In the first eight months of 1988, more than 9,000 new residential building permits have been granted, according to county planners. The city of Moreno Valley, 10 miles east of Riverside, was incorporated less than four years ago but already has more than 90,000 residents.

With growth have come traffic congestion, smog, loss of agricultural land, environmental deterioration and concern about the water supply.

Traffic Problems

Of these, probably the most aggravating is traffic. Many residents must commute three to four hours a day in order to live in Riverside County, where the average home price is $111,205, instead of in Orange County, where it is $203,269.

“I can tell you people are not going to stand for this kind of crowding very much longer,” said John W. Roth, an aerospace engineer who is president of Yes on Residents Controlling Growth, the organization that placed the initiative on the ballot.

Convinced that the county Board of Supervisors and other county officials were doing little to stem uncontrolled growth, Roth’s group gathered more than 35,000 signatures in support of its initiative.

Measure B would tie the annual population growth rate in the county’s unincorporated areas to the statewide average of the previous year. County planners say this would restrict new building permits to about 2,500 in 1989--a serious blow to developers who have been filling the county’s open spaces with new housing tracts and “planned communities.”

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Permit Reduction

Measure B would also reduce building permits by another 10% a year if transportation improvement goals were not met and still another 10% if the ratio of new jobs to new housing units was not improved dramatically.

There are also provisions to preserve agricultural land and open space and to encourage future development in parts of the county that are already urbanized.

Initiative supporters planned for a vote last June, but the Board of Supervisors took advantage of a newly passed and little-known state law to delay the election until November, claiming that new studies were needed to assess the initiative’s impact.

Supervisor Melba Dunlap called the 3-2 vote “unfair.” But the majority of the supervisors not only delayed the election but subsequently approved a series of “developer agreements” that so far have exempted more than 70,000 housing units from the initiative’s provisions, should it pass. By the time the election is held, almost 100,000 units probably will have been exempted, according to county planners.

‘Make a Lot of Questions Moot’

“Passage of so many developer agreements makes a lot of the questions moot,” said Max Neiman, associate professor of political science at UC Riverside and a former member of the Riverside City Planning Commission.

Many of the projects included in these agreements were approved in concept years ago, said Supervisor Walt Abraham, in whose district more than half of these new units will be built. “These are in the system. It would be unfair to renege on our commitment.”

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But the supervisors also have approved about a dozen developer agreements that cover entirely new projects. Dunlap voted against some of these and Supervisor Kay Ceniceros said she was “not as comfortable” voting for new projects as for those that were “already in the pipeline.”

‘Fiefdom System’

However, Ceniceros, who was just elected to a third term, said the Board of Supervisors operates under a “fiefdom system,” in which one supervisor seldom votes against a project in another supervisor’s district, no matter how little merit it may have.

Dunlap, a second-term supervisor, said: “I thought I could make a difference and change the ‘fiefdom system’, but I learned that in planning areas, you don’t. . . . I have the black and blue marks to show for it.”

Dunlap also said she has “a nagging question in the back of my mind” about the quality of the reviews that the developer agreements have received from the Planning Commission and from the County Planning Department, since they were processed in a few months’ time instead of the usual 18 months to two years.

Fee on Units

But County Planning Director Roger S. Streeter said, “What we have done is, quite frankly, phenomenal, and I feel quite comfortable about it.”

Streeter also noted that the supervisors slapped a “residential dwelling unit” fee of $4,277 on each unit covered by the developer agreements, which should yield more than $350 million in new revenue for the county over the next 10 years.

Builders and developers bitterly opposed the new fee, but Ceniceros defended it. “That’s a source of identified funding that’s going to buy us open space, road improvements and a lot of the other goals of the initiative,” she said.

Ceniceros also said the number of units in many projects has been reduced and better designs have been adopted as a result of the developer agreement review process.

Geared Up Campaign

Delaying the election from June to November gave Residents for Responsible Planning more time to gear up their campaign of opposition, and gear up they did.

Campaign manager Wilson said $850,000 will have been raised by the end of September, while about $20,000 has been raised by the measure’s supporters.

This 40 to 1 spending advantage has allowed Residents for Responsible Planning to hire a full-time staff of a dozen people, rent a large office in downtown Riverside and pay for expensive mailers and billboards, among other items. In contrast, the Yes on Residents Controlling Growth campaign has no office (“the campaign is wherever we are,” said Bill Havert, conservation coordinator of the local Sierra Club branch and vice president of the “Yes” group) and has been unable to raise enough money for even one countywide mailing.

No Home Telephone

Roth, the group’s president, has no telephone in his rural Gavilan Hills home, a quixotic gesture that limits his accessibility to reporters and others who might want to contact the campaign.

Organizers of past successful slow-growth efforts in the city of Riverside say their advice has been ignored by Roth and Havert. They were urged, for instance, to run serious candidates in June against Supervisors Abraham and Ceniceros, who were up for reelection, but Ceniceros was unopposed and Abraham won overwhelmingly against three minor opponents.

“You have to have a serious candidate who is willing to run,” Havert replied with a shrug. “We didn’t have them.”

The Residents for Responsible Planning group is not defensive about the fact that much of their money has come from builders, developers and allied businesses--Wilson says 60% but Havert said it was 83% at the end of June and he doubts that it has changed much since then.

‘Broad-Based Coalition’

Wilson said his group is “a broad-based coalition” with representatives from organized labor, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, affordable housing advocates and other elements of the county’s community and that contributions have come from 870 separate individuals or companies.

“We said from the start we would take builders’ money,” Wilson said. “You need that kind of money to wage the kind of educational campaign we needed to defeat this initiative. But we also said we would go after contributions from a cross-section of average people. . . . And we’ve done that.”

“We’re not ashamed of the fact that we have to spend a lot of money to defeat this,” said Bill Bopf, a vice president of the 97,000-acre Rancho California development 35 miles south of Riverside, which has contributed more than $200,000 to Residents for Responsible Planning.

Developers Encouraged

Clayton Record, a former Riverside County supervisor and a leader in the anti-initiative campaign, said the Orange County experience has encouraged builders and developers to attack slow-growth measures more aggressively.

The successful $2.5-million Orange County campaign “demonstrated that an appropriate educational campaign can be organized without having the development community presented as the guys in the black hats,” Record said. “That has helped a lot.”

Residents for Responsible Planning has been using the money to press their arguments that Measure B would do nothing to improve traffic congestion, would increase housing prices and would cost the county jobs because construction would be slowed and new industries would be reluctant to move to an area that did not have adequate housing for employees.

Spending Gap Issue

The measure’s supporters hope to make the spending gap an issue, presenting themselves as David against the Goliath of what they describe as the “well-heeled groups” opposing the initiative.

“We can’t afford a luxury campaign,” Roth said. “We have to rely on people to read the ballot arguments, to think about where the money comes from and what the motives of these people are and then hope they’ll have the good sense to vote for the ‘home team.’ ”


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