The Battle Between Two Ways to Manage Growth

William Fulton, editor of California Planning and Development Report, is a senior research fellow at the Southern California Studies Center at USC

After nearly 90 years of experience with initiatives and referendums, the people of California have become accustomed to voting on everything that matters and even a few things that don’t. But do Californians want to vote on every single house a developer wants to build?

Maybe not. Last Tuesday, much to the surprise of virtually everybody who was paying attention, voters in three cities in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area rejected a restrictive set of antigrowth initiatives. The measures would have subjected practically every new housing development to a vote, thus bringing citizen involvement in land-use planning--or voter micro-management, depending on your point of view--to a whole new level. But residents of Pleasanton and Livermore overwhelmingly rejected the Citizen Alliance for Public Planning’s (CAPP) initiatives, while their counterparts in San Ramon narrowly selected a more moderate alternative sponsored by their City Council.

The setback at the polls hasn’t derailed other attempts to govern growth from the ballot box, but it may force slow-growth activists to rethink their approaches. The defeat of the CAPP initiatives may be a victory for the “smart growth” philosophy advocated by state Treasurer Phil Angelides and others, which seeks to direct growth to appropriate locations rather than stop it.


In the world of urban planning, the CAPP defeats were big news. It was only a year ago that another large-scale citizen ballot effort to govern local planning, this one in Ventura County, passed with flying colors, thus setting off a new wave of interest in “ballot-box zoning.” As sprawl and smart growth became major issues across the country, the SOAR (Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources) initiative received oceans of nationwide publicity.

SOAR has become the darling of the slow-growth crowd and the scourge of developers. It’s also spawned a huge number of copycat measures from Agoura Hills to Tracy. CAPP was widely viewed as one of the copycats. But something was different about the alliance from the beginning. Though it was born from the same localized antigrowth fervor that stimulated SOAR and a hundred other land-use ballot initiatives, CAPP bucked the trend that land-use planning and ballot-box zoning is moving toward.

CAPP’s effort mirrored SOAR’s in two important ways. It involved a coordinated group of initiatives in neighboring communities, thereby aiming to shape growth patterns in an entire region with one blow from citizens. Also, it was based on the idea that voters should have the final say over zone changes and amendments to local plans. But there the similarity ended.

SOAR and most of its offspring seek to halt suburban sprawl by creating urban-growth boundaries, inside of which new development can take place. Unlike many previous land-use initiatives, SOAR-style measures don’t seek to restrict a community’s population size or its rate of growth. Rather, they stake out a growth boundary that cannot be changed without the approval of voters. The assumption is that communities will grow but such growth will be accommodated to protect farmland and open space.

This is the essence of what has come to be known as the smart-growth philosophy, a movement currently promoted by Angelides, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (who coined the term) and, to a lesser extent, Vice President Al Gore. These politicians contend that, in a state like California, neither population growth nor economic expansion can be stopped. Therefore, they say, growth should be channeled to central cities and older suburbs that can benefit from absorbing it. The goal is to accommodate growth but halt the endless outward cycle of suburban sprawl, which chews up open land and draws investment to the metropolitan fringe away from deteriorating older communities.

Smart growth is a great philosophy on paper. But it often runs into opposition, understandably enough, from homeowners in existing communities targeted for new growth. These folks aren’t concerned about suburban sprawl and its impact on fragile ecosystems. They just don’t want more growth in their backyards.

This was the anxiety that created the CAPP movement in the East Bay and also shaped its policy approach in a different way from SOAR’s. Rather than creating urban-growth boundaries, the CAPP initiatives simply required voter approval of any new development consisting of 10 houses or more. The initiatives were not tied to any vision of how to accommodate more growth, but to the belief that local residents should be able to vote on developments in their neighborhoods.

For this reason, CAPP didn’t get the support of all the smart-growth advocates in California. Angelides denounced it. Greenbelt Alliance, a slow-growth citizens group that has conducted a series of initiative campaigns to create urban-growth boundaries in the Bay Area, took a neutral position. The smart growthers’ bottom line was that CAPP was dumb because it simply allowed the voters to say “no” to more growth.

But was that the reason the voters turned it down? The word on the street in the East Bay last week was that many voters thought the initiatives went too far: They didn’t want to go to the polls every time somebody wanted to build a few houses.

At the same time the CAPP initiatives were going down to defeat, voters elsewhere in California showed their ability to discriminate carefully among ballot-box zoning issues. In Agoura Hills, they approved a SOAR-style measure. In the first election required under SOAR in Ventura, voters OK’d a zone change on agricultural land to permit construction of a church. In Fairfield, voters turned down a “greenbelt” proposal that also would have permitted lots of development.

After the CAPP setbacks, even ardent supporters of voters’ rights began to rethink their approach. For example, the Sierra Club, which supported CAPP, announced plans to drop a CAPP-like vote requirement from a land-use initiative it is planning to place on the Alameda County ballot next year.

That kind of approach makes more sense, because it allows voters to make the big decisions without saddling them with the small ones as well. So maybe, as the smart growthers might argue, the voters aren’t so dumb, after all.