Goleta’s Preservationists Eye a Political Solution to Land Use Politics?

Fighting Development at the Ballot Box

Goodland Coalition Launches Goleta Heritage Farmlands Initiative

Story by Matt Kettman of the SB Independent, Originally Published on February 22, 2012


As it stands today, it’s not particularly easy to build new housing in Goleta, which incorporated as a city 10 years ago in order to better throttle the region’s growth. But if a group of slow-growth activists get their way, that process is certain to become even more daunting, at least for those who’d want to turn large agricultural properties into suburbia.

That’s the thrust of the Goleta Heritage Farmlands Initiative, which was officially unveiled at Tuesday night’s city council meeting by Robert Wignot from the preservation-minded Goodland Coalition. The group, which formed to fight against the proposed development of Bishop Ranch last year, is now collecting the 1,600 valid signatures needed to put the initiative on the November 2012 ballot. If it passes, the city’s voters, via a simple majority of 50 percent plus one, would have the final say for developing any Goleta properties that are more than 10 acres and currently zoned for farming — and that citywide vote would come only after such proposals have successfully wound their way through the entire planning process, including an approval by the city council.

In an interview with The Santa Barbara Independent before Tuesday’s hearing, Wignot explained that his group was “heartened” by the council’s unanimous vote against developing Bishop Ranch last September, but that the nature of politics could make future decisions fall any which way. “Down the road, we may get a council that’s more amenable to rezoning some or all of these lands to another use,” said Wignot, who sits on the city’s Design Review Board. “That’s fine, as long as the community is in accord, but we think the voters should have the final say….Right now, with a simple majority, three votes on any given Tuesday can amend the General Plan.”

Hoping to preserve Goleta’s legacy as a land of orchards and rural open space, the initiative — which was developed with the legal help of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara and is following the template of a similar initiative that passed a couple years ago in Buellton— targets just six parcels: the 240-acre Bishop Ranch; two parcels on each side of Bishop Ranch; Fairview Gardens; a 23-acre chunk in Ellwood Canyon; and the Shelby property, which is located next to Glen Annie Golf Club. The latter property, however, is already moving through the planning process, said Wignot, and may be approved for development before this initiative is activated. Additionally, the initiative would also include any unincorporated lands that are annexed into the city down the road, and any changes to them would have to refer to today’s zoning.


Why Planning at the Ballot Box is a Bad Idea (A Collection of Points from Various APA, LGC and Resources)

While ballot measures provide an important check and balance to our representative form of government, they are also subject to abuse.  Many trade and non-profit groups may advocate for limited and discrete ballot box planning measures particularly related to public finance and even growth management.  However, proponents of ballot measures should consider that ballot box can be too crude for use as a land planning tool.

A ballot measure is inflexible once filed and it can over-simplify issues. It may unnecessarily make constitutional amendments out of statutory matters; generate unfunded mandates; become an arena for monied players, especially in the “business” of signature gathering; provide a forum for back-and-forth between certain interest groups instead of true and more varied democratic exchange; and lack accountability and explicit statements of the impacts and implications related to the ballot measure. (Seltzer and Rehberg, 2002).

Proponents of Growth Management at the Ballot Box should consider the following:

1. Ballot measures are typically an “all or nothing” proposal, leaving no room for a compromise or a discussion of alternatives.  The business of land use planning is a complex mix of trades, civic interests, and public and private finance.  Boiling diverse technical guidance and the continuum of public participation into a ballot measure is both parochial and exclusionary.  Ballot measures often propose inherently sweeping reform that may not be appropriate for all geographic areas or all situations. This “one-size-fits-all” approach causes barriers for community groups or neighborhoods to adopt their own vision.

2. Ballot measures do not typically give the voter an analysis of the potential impacts of the proposal.

3. Potential environmental impacts are not addressed; a cornerstone of progressive land use practice and the basis for California’s land use legal system.

4. Secondary or tertiary public fiscal impacts may not be included in ballot language.

5. Ballot measures put popularity over content; usually favoring immediate issues over comprehensive and long range decision making.  They are inherently short-sighted; disregarding potential impacts on, and input from, future generations.

6. Ballot measures put complex and technical land planning, real estate, architectural, civil engineering, and/or fiscal policy questions in the hand of voters who may not have said skills, experience or the time to become informed and engaged. Ballot measures therefore lead to a community’s further disenfranchisement.

7. Ballot measures are jurisdiction-centric and do not contemplate regional planning impacts. Fair housing and other civil rights issues often go disregarded.

8. Ballot measures only query voters.  Non-voters and/or minority groups may therefore have no input.

9. Ballot measures take land use decisions out of the hands of the public officials that were elected, in many cases, on some form of a land use platform.  Removing land use planning authority from elected officials also removes their accountability.  Ballot measures therefore lead to further distrust in government’s responsibility over land use decisions.

10. Ballot measures are expensive to run; there is no guarantee that one ballot measure won’t beget another ballot measure to correct, fine tune or unwind the preceding ballot measure. The expense of holding the referendum and the legal notices, ballot printing, and other associated election costs would need to be borne either by the government or by the petitioner. In any case, the cost of amendments would go up, favoring the better-financed petitioner. The underprivileged and less wealthy would be at a disadvantage.

11. Ballot measures are contemplated as a result of sound-bites and paid political advertisements within the confines of a ballot booth.  In contrast, the planning process provides a continuum wherein a diversity of constituents can make subtle or drastic changes to public policy, both of which are far less susceptible to the whims of instant gratification or private influence.

12. The planning process allows professionals to analyze projects for consistency with long-range and comprehensive public policy.  These policies are the prism under which projects and future policies are viewed and compared to economic trends, new technologies, natural disasters, actions or inactions of surrounding communities, new state or federal laws and other unforeseen opportunities.  This system of professional assessment has a very public check and balance – project and policy recommendations are forwarded to a legislative body of elected or appointed officials for decisions.

13. The planning process is the interface to vet development projects and policies with seemingly unrelated processes.  Planners continually measure projects and policy for impacts to urban design; historic preservation; food supply; public health; transportation; environmental protection; public services such as police, fire, library, parks, schools, child care, health care and social services; and public utilities such as water, sewer, telecommunications and energy.  After this analysis, a policy or project’s potential impacts to commercial, residential, industrial, agricultural sectors of a community can be deliberated and balanced over time.  As economies change, the continuum of adapted public policy follows.

14. The planning process includes all stakeholders so everyone can understand the many perspectives with a goal towards expanding a community’s knowledge base.  This is a two-say street between the citizenry and their elected representatives.  Policy makers and the public engage in a continuous dialogue where the public not only comes to understand policy issues, but informs policy makers of their value on what policy directions are important to them.

Want more resources on the history of California’s Ballot Box Planning?  More than you knew, or ever wanted to know is here… in a white paper on Growth Management Ballot Measures by Solimar Research Group for the Local Government Commission.