Commentary : Which Growth Proposition Is the Best? : Prop. H: Versatility vs. Rigidity and Lies

<i> Ron Roberts is on the San Diego City Council</i>

As a boy growing up in San Diego, I attended Mark Twain Elementary School in Linda Vista. Ever since, I’ve been particularly fond of my old school’s namesake. One quote of Twain’s that I really enjoy is, “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”

I’ve recalled that line often recently as I read or hear the shrill claims and allegations of some Proposition J supporters and Proposition H opponents. There has been a consistent distortion of what Proposition J will do and how the City Council’s competing Proposition H will work. Not content to just inaccurately characterize Proposition H, they’ve resorted to personal attacks, questioning the motives of those who crafted it. Add in a few misstatements about the causes of growth, and you’ve got lies, damn lies, and statistics.

The City Council-sponsored Proposition H is opposed by the Building Industry Assn., the San Diego Board of Realtors and the San Diego Apartment Owners Assn. Those organizations know just how tough a growth-control measure Proposition H really is. On the other hand, the council’s measure is opposed as too weak by no-growth proponents who would like to see San Diego’s economy slowed down to about the speed of Mark Twain’s famous lead-filled jumping frog.

Proposition H is tough on growth, but it’s also carefully drafted to ensure a balanced approach that won’t harm our local economy. After 18 months of hearings with the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Growth and Development and the City Council, we formulated a plan that focuses on what we felt concerned our constituents most: controlling growth without pulverizing jobs, preserving our existing neighborhoods from the encroachment of apartment buildings and strict protection of environmental features such as canyons and hillsides that make San Diego special.


As tough as Proposition H is, we did write in limited flexibility to correct any mistakes we may have made in drafting it. We’ve been criticized for that, but the council isn’t pretending to be infallible, and doesn’t claim to know precisely what San Diego’s needs will be in 22 years. Why pick that number? Because Proposition J, if enacted, locks in its stifling provisions for 22 years--no citizen review or council action is possible to correct flaws not evident when the language was first drafted. The council believes that citizens deserve to review what they’ve enacted, and, as a result, Proposition H requires voter review within five years.

Proposition J’s proponents carefully bottled their product under the rubric “Quality of Life Initiative.” Like something peddled by a Mark Twain character, proponents claim this magic elixir will reduce traffic, improve our air, increase rapid transit, guarantee future water supplies, preserve all hillsides, wetlands and canyons, prevent “tasteless and tacky development,” and reduce the crime rate. Snake oil right out of “Huckleberry Finn.”

The J forces claim foul when critics point out their severe housing cap of 4,000 units a year, to be phased in by 1991, and locked in for nearly two decades. They’ll suggest that, if their mythical “standards” of air quality, water availability, traffic no-congestion, sewer and trash capacity are met, the number of units allowed will increase and the overall effect won’t be onerous. Sounds logical until you read a little further and understand that their standards are either regional standards not controlled by the city or simply unattainable in the first place.

For example, the Proposition J standard for air quality requires compliance with federal and state clean air acts for ozone levels. That’s a laudable goal, but failure to reach compliance cuts the number of San Diego houses to 4,000 annually. To fully comprehend Proposition J, you must realize that in 1987, San Diego exceeded safe ozone levels on 40 days. Twenty-six of those days, or 65% of the total, the wind blew the ozone south from Los Angeles. There must be language in Proposition J somewhere that requires the wind to blow north to L. A., but I haven’t found it.

How onerous is 4,000 units? In 1986, we built about 16,000 units in the city. The council’s proposed Proposition H would cut total units to 7,590 annually, a strong reduction. Obviously, Proposition J would cut in half the number of available housing units from even the tough level the council wants.

Proposition H proposes realistic goals for improvement of air quality, water quality and traffic, not arbitrary “standards” that punish San Diegans for the sins of Southern California as a whole. Proposition H is simply the product of more careful, reasoned drafting. We took care with regard to the ability of citizens to remodel their own homes, for example, by guaranteeing remodels as a matter of right. In some cases, Proposition J would prevent you from remodeling your home.

The manner in which each ballot measure deals with traffic is also illuminating. Proposition J requires a rollback of traffic congestion to the level of years ago. Any increase in that level, and we’re back to a restricted number of housing units. Nowhere in Proposition J is there an explanation of the root causes of increased traffic congestion--just the broad suggestion that new homes must be clogging our freeways.

Proposition H recognizes that traffic has increased, but because of an interrelated series of trends that have less to do with population growth than with life-style changes. All recent traffic studies point to the conclusions of an increase in the number of cars per household, in the number of workers per household, in the number of miles per trip, in trip frequency, and worst of all, an increase in the number of vehicles with just one person on board. The percentage increase for all those factors has far exceeded the corresponding increase in population. When you mix those elements with the reality that road building locally has been almost nonexistent, you’ve got a major problem. It’s a problem that won’t disappear by waving the wand of housing caps at it, and to suggest it will is what Mark Twain would have called “. . . a compound fracture of fact.”

Unlike Proposition J, Proposition H requires each community plan to have a transportation element, establishing appropriate levels of traffic service. All new development will be required to provide a level of transportation service that doesn’t have an adverse impact on existing service, and Proposition H also mandates that the city establish traffic management programs to reduce traffic.

Proposition H is a balanced approach that ensures the future economic health of our community while strongly protecting the present environment. Vote to preserve the San Diego we love, for us today and our kids tomorrow.