The state budget crisis has prompted Palmdale lawmakers to raise a once-unthinkable question: Can Palmdale, the fastest-growing California city in the 1980s, afford to keep expanding at its once-rapid pace?
Although debate over growth has long fueled civic disputes in Los Angeles and other urban areas, the premise of "more is better" has been the virtually unquestioned development creed of the Antelope Valley--until now.
An unexpected sign of change came recently when the Palmdale City Council held up plans to annex an additional 25 square miles. And for the first time, council members raised doubts about whether they ultimately will grab the remaining 71 square miles in the city's 174-square-mile sphere of influence, the area eligible for annexation.
Driving the change are fears that the city could not afford to provide services to vast new areas, and a newly elected council majority with perhaps the most restrained growth policies in Palmdale's 30-year history.
"I think we need to send a message that maybe what's been good in the past may not be good in the future," said Mayor Jim Ledford, the 38-year-old businessman picked for the job in an April election that also brought a moderate-growth majority to the council for the first time.
One of Ledford's chief goals is to revitalize the city's central areas, where pockets of land remain undeveloped. But he is convinced that will never happen if Palmdale continues to encourage housing on cheap land on its outskirts--hence his interest in limiting annexations.
Developers, meanwhile, challenged Ledford's philosophy about limiting annexations, saying such a policy would not persuade them to move into the city's core.
The council's new approach, aired at a meeting Thursday night, buoyed residents inside and outside the city.
"This council is definitely taking some radically different views this evening than I've seen in the past three years," said Leona Valley activist Mark Johnstone.
Not surprisingly, the development community sees no reason to halt the annexations.
"This is a classic example of what has been in every magazine and newspaper article that's been written about California. You can't get anything done," businessman Mike Dispenza said at the meeting.
The annexation issue was brought to a head because of the continuing deadlock over the state budget. City officials say the state's efforts to trim a nearly $11-billion state shortfall could cost the city up to $4 million in expected state funding, although the final figure will probably be less.
And Palmdale and the county of Los Angeles remain far apart on how to share the expected property tax revenues from the proposed annexations. The city has been demanding a 15% share of the money, but county officials have offered the city a 5% share. Over time, that share would be increased to 7%.
For the first time in memory, council members last week publicly voiced concern that the cost of providing city services to proposed annexation areas--in particular, two planned housing developments totaling 12,400 homes--could hurt the city's existing residents.
The impact of proposed housing developments on current residents must be a top priority in the minds of council members, said Councilman David Myers, another moderate-growth candidate elected in April.
"We've got to err on the side of our residents," Myers said.
So council members agreed to not consider the 11 pending annexations totaling 25 square miles until after a new state budget clarifies the city's financial outlook. In doing so, they chiefly held up the 7,200-home Ritter Ranch project--17 square miles--and the 5,200-home City Ranch project--three square miles.
Both master-planned communities are close to obtaining their final development approvals, and it appears unlikely that even the new council would abort the developments. But Myers already opposes Ritter Ranch, and Ledford would not rule out the possibility of a council change of heart on the Ritter project.
And at the council meeting, Councilwoman Teri Jones, another new member who was appointed this spring, was the one who suggested delaying the annexations and directly challenged Ritter Ranch's project manager, Peter Wenner, to help the city squeeze more property tax money from the county.
Wenner acknowledged the city's financial concerns but argued that city officials have failed to adequately take into account the direct and indirect financial benefits such projects bring through jobs, developer fees and improvements for the city.
For instance, Ritter Ranch has promised Palmdale to pay for at least $40 million worth of park and recreation facilities, public buildings and road projects beyond normal requirements. But according to Palmdale's figures, the project still would cost the city more money than it would produce.
Whatever the outcome on the Ritter and City Ranch projects, Ledford and Myers insisted the council is serious about restraining Palmdale future annexations. The city's predatory land-grabbing practices in past years chilled its relations with residents in surrounding rural areas.
Under previous councils, the city grew from about 45 square miles in 1983 to 78 square miles at present, a 73% increase during the decade. In doing so, it brought urban-style tract home development to many previously undeveloped or rural areas as the city leapfrogged outward.
By limiting that outward movement, city officials not only hope to achieve a rapprochement with surrounding rural areas such as Quartz Hill and Acton--which have fought annexation--but also to reduce the city's extra costs of providing services to far-flung locations.
Toward that end, the council Thursday approved a new policy to not pursue annexations where inhabitants are opposed. It also asked planning officials to develop minimum financial conditions--such as a 15% city share of county-collected property tax money--without which future annexations could not occur.
There also are potential drawbacks. For example, by limiting outward growth, the city is likely to reduce its revenue from developer fees, which have long been a mainstay of the city's $31-million budget, cautioned Councilman Jim Root, another growth moderate elected in 1990.
And Councilman Joe Davies, elected in 1988 and the only holdover from the ardently pro-growth previous council, warned his colleagues they were "whistling Dixie" if they believe holding up the annexations will help get more money from the county. The only result, Davies said, will be little development.
Ledford and Myers, meanwhile, insisted the council's new approach is not just a temporary response to the recession, to be abandoned when the economy improves. "The city of Palmdale is serious about the annexation issue," Myers said.
Palmdale, once a sleepy desert town, took off in the 1980s, earning the title of California's fastest-growing city from the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. The private research group used several measurements, from population to sales tax increases to building permits, to make the designation. Palmdale's population rose from 12,277 in 1980 to 68,842 in 1990--a jump of 461%.