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Land-use policymaking doesn’t belong at ballot box

The man’s tired and in a hurry. Pushing one or two grocery carts, laden with food and other stuff out of the local Vons, his singular task is to get to the car, load up and leave. Nothing’s going to get in the way; he’ll be homeward bound in a couple of minutes.

That’s what he thinks. Instead, he’s going to unwittingly help frame a future election issue by coming face-to-face with somebody he’s never seen before who will ask him to “sign here” to put something on the ballot. If past issues are an indicator, the topic possibilities are endless: Should medical marijuana dispensaries be allowed -- or not allowed -- in our city? How much space should egg-laying hens have in commercial chicken coops? Should hormones be banned in food? Should important land use decisions be made by voters at the ballot box rather than by the local office holders they elect to hold accountable for such decisions?

My ice cream’s melting; I gotta get going. What’s this all about?

“You don’t have to be for or against it,” replies the pitchman who’s paid for every valid signature he collects. “Just sign this petition and allow voters to decide the issue.”

Gee, I think that makes sense. What’s the harm in … whatever this is? No way does the hurried shopper have the time or inclination to read the text of the initiative.

He signs the clipboard document, not knowing much, if anything, about the proposal details – or, every bit as important – who is backing the measure.

California’s initiative and referendum process was designed to empower voters to sidestep the legislature and enact laws when lawmakers either disregard or ignore the public will.

On the surface, it’s a proper and constructive alternative, provided the process has safeguards in place to be sure the proposal being brought forward accomplishes what its supporters want it to do – and is legal.

In reality, though, the process is all too often abused. Many ballot propositions, especially those initiatives conceived in proponents’ living rooms and then hatched on petition clipboards in front of supermarkets, either bring about unintended consequences or ignore more practical remedies to whatever the problem is.

Fourteen years ago, Escondido voters passed Proposition S, a slow-growth initiative that requires voter approval of any changes in an individual property’s zoning from residential to commercial or industrial and/or any increase in allowable densities for a residential property.

Proposals for zoning or density changes for a single property must be accompanied by multiple pages of detailed documentation, plans and other land use minutia, more appropriate for city planners and elected representatives who are in place and equipped to deal with such issues.

A decade later, the Prop S cabal carried their ballot box zoning scheme to neighboring San Marcos, only to suffer a massive trouncing by a two-to-one margin of that city’s voters.

That wasn’t the end, though. The growth control-by-ballot idea has now crept into Encinitas as the so-called “Right to Vote” initiative. Last week, the city council agreed to study what some critics are referring to it as a “chaotic building moratorium.” Like Escondido’s Prop S, this measure requires a public vote to change a property’s zoning or increase its allowable residential density. But this one also would set a citywide building height of 30 feet – roughly that of a three-story structure – and place stricter public notification requirements for development proposals.

Seems somewhat ironic, though, that the council’s two new members, Tony Kranz and Lisa Shaffer, signed the petition when it was circulated before they were elected last November but reportedly now have serious concerns about it.

If that’s the case, could it be they’ve come to realize land use policies are better fashioned by those who are willing and able to take into account the needs of all who live in the community – not just a few?

What petition signers and even some proponents don’t take into account are the several unintended consequences such growth-control measures create.

In Escondido, it isn’t that hard to imagine the number of worthwhile development projects – including major employment centers -- that never brought jobs and other commercial amenities to the city over the past 14 years because employers were unwilling to submit the fate of their project to a vote of people unfamiliar with land use matters.

The city’s saving grace, however, is that voters approved a General Plan update last November that encompasses many of the zoning and density changes needed by job creators. For the most part, the new plan will preclude the threat of Prop S elections for some time.

Meanwhile, voters in Escondido and other cities already have ample power to control land use in their communities through electing representatives who share their views and “un-electing” them when they don’t.

For the most part, supermarkets and other commercial outlets are venues for shopping, not making land use policy.

Daniels, principal consultant of Dick Daniels Public Relations, has been a public relations practitioner for 35 years and was an Escondido city councilman from 2006 to 2010.

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