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The Pros And Cons Of Ballot Box Zoning

July 9, 2013 12:52 p.m.


Michael Stepner, Professor New School of Architecture and the former city architect for San Diego.

Bruce Ehlers, Proponent of Ballot Box Zoning and author of Proposition A Right to Vote Initiative passed by Encinitas voters

Related Story: The Pros And Cons Of Ballot Box Zoning


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: The economy is picking up, and money is flowing again into building new homes and shopping centers. We want to take a look today at a topic that arises passion in many neighborhoods. How much control should local residents have over what gets built in their community? The pros and cons of ballot box planning, and we have two of the panelists with us. Professor of the new school of architecture, and former city architecture for San Diego.

STEPNER: Thank you for inviting me.

ST. JOHN: And Bruce Ehlers who is the main spokesperson for proposition A, that was a successful citizens' initiative that passed in June in Encinitas giving voters the power to vote on projects that differ significantly from the city's general plan. Thank you so much for coming in.

EHLERS: Thank you for having me.

ST. JOHN: Let's start with you. Give us a little bit of education here. Developers are pushing the envelope, aren't they? What stops them from building whatever they want?

EHLERS: Well, what stops them or guides them, perhaps, is the guided plans for an area, and subdivision ordinances that tell you what you can and can't do. But there's also a process with those existing policies and plans to amend, to go forward and ask for something different than what the plan calls for. And you go through the process, and decide whether it's appropriate or not appropriate.

ST. JOHN: And who puts together the overall vision for the city or the community?

EHLERS: Well, it's done by the community and the elected officials. In California, the City Councils or the county Board of Supervisors must adopt a general plan, which is the long-range vision for the community. It's done with city input, professional and technical help, and it goes through a long process trying to bring everybody to some sort of consensus, which doesn't always work. Sometimes the citizenry feels that they have -- or nofraction feels they have no input, and they will, using California law, which allows for a approximationing by the ballot, which says we should do this or something different.

ST. JOHN: Let's take a specific example, Encinitas. And Bruce, your city did have a plan that was put together with the citizen input. You were a key advocate for proposition A. What made citizens feel like they needed proposition A that allowed them to vote again on projects that deviated from that plan?

EHLERS: It actually allows the citizens to vote on increases in intensity and height over the current plan. So just those. What we felt frustrated with is the city was going through a comprehensive general plan update process, and the City Council which at the time was very pro development had proposed several increases, large increases blanketing the city to the point where even that same City Council threw them out, threw out the changes and started again, a second time. And we saw where it was going the second time. It was going to the same very large increases in zoning and density and height. And we acted, we decided we needed an initiative to basically require a vote of the people for any future increases in zoning density or height.

STEPNER: O even before you had your certainly plan for the city updated, you decided you needed a backstop?

EHLERS: Well, we have a very good general plan in place today, and the city is going through a process to update it. So it was that update process that was going through the standard city staff, and what they called citizen input. But it was a very small, special group, 500 people as opposed to the ballot initiative which had 8500 people sign in support of it.

ST. JOHN: And how did if pass?

EHLERS: It passed 52-48%.

ST. JOHN: So it was kind of ify. Upon it was hard to predict if it would pass or not, but it did get through.

EHLERS: Iffy in that the opponents spent about ten times the amount that we spent.

ST. JOHN: Well, that's a very good issue to bring up because money is obviously always a part of this.


ST. JOHN: Mike, with a little bit of history about how ballot box zoning has been used in the City of San Diego for many years, right?

STEPNER: Well, it's been going on forever. I go back to Proposition D, which is the 30-foot height limit in the coastal zone west of I-5. It was based in 1971, I believe. The same time the coastal act was passed. We had a series of growth management war issues in the mid-80s to limit GROWTH under certain standards. Two initiatives were sponsored by a group called plan for Los Angelesation now. And there was also a fifth ballot measure called can we all work together. The citizenry in their wisdom voted down the -- all four initiatives, and voted to allow us to work together, which we haven't done yet, but that's another issue.

ST. JOHN: But talk a little bit about how that's affected the city in terms of how it's evolved in the past few decades.

STEPNER: Well, I think it really has evolved in -- there's a lot of concern. And I think one of the things Bruce may talk about is the fact that it brought the people from Encinitas out to really discuss the issues that were affecting their community. And right or wrong, whether you agree with what the outcome was, are I think it's critical to have that civic engagement and people to begin to take an ownership roll of their community, and I think that's what happened with the ballot measures that we have had over the years in the city where people, at least for a while, are very concerned -- if the initiative is not the right thing, what is the right thing to protect our communities or guide their development in a way that we all want to see happen?

ST. JOHN: Okay. We have a caller on the line. Go ahead, thanks for calling.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello, this is Greg in Oceanside. I was listening in Encinitas for quite a number of years, about 20 years, and I was living there with Encinitas incorporated. I was on the citizens' committee to draft the general plan, and when it came to the housing element, there was quite a bit of inclusive language put in concerning density and most especially low-income housing and affordable housing. The City Council in 1987 basically eviscerated that, and they have been playing games and dodging the state mandates for 26 years or so. And this density issue and the voting recently in Encinitas was really a camouflaged effort to get around dealing with that.

ST. JOHN: Well, Greg you raise a really important point. And let me just throw it over here to Bruce. 1 of the issues was that the whole City Council in Encinitas decided not to support this proposition even though some of them originally were elected, because they found out that state mandates about density and affordable housing, it might be very hard to meet those if you take it to the ballot.

EHLERS: I'm not sure that's why they opposed it. If you talk to them, they opposed it because of the height change, the limit to the 30-foot, 2 story height limit.

ST. JOHN: But it comes back to Greg's point, I think about the state mandates for affordable housing.

EHLERS: Well, in the case of Encinitas and the general plan, our general plan as it stands today, and as it was adopted in 1987, it has a requirement for a vote of the people on any upzoning. So it's already there, but it had an exception. And what proposition A did was take that exception way. Well, the council by a unanimous vote, by resolution, not by initiative, took that four fifths away in an attempt to -- it will say -- they would have said you adopt the spirit of prop A. We would have said to take the wind out of our sails. But the bottom line is that that requirement for a vote of the people, both sides agree on. Both the council because they adopted it by resolution, and the prop A because prop A adopted it in the end, by initiative that would require a future vote of the people to change.

ST. JOHN: Well, Mike, as someone who's been a planner for so many years, do you see this as being counter productive for getting the amount of affordable housing that we need in San Diego? If we put limits on developers? It's very hard to get something through at the ballot initiative.

STEPNER: If I can just step aside on the affordable housing question for a moment, I think what happens is it falls into the law of unintended consequences. If you lock yourself into a height limit or density limit, it's very, very difficult to change, even if you want to change it. It's costly through another ballot initiative. We have a tendency to work in sound bites. We as a society. So we react to the sound bites rather than take the time to analyze the issues, present concepts and ideas that really are appropriate and go through the process and the flexibility that isn't there with a ballot initiative limits you from getting from the community what you really want.

ST. JOHN: Right. However, I still want to keep on with this question about the state mandate, and the fact that our elected officials are often beholden to the state to meet certain requirements for housing that become very difficult to meet if in fact the decisions are being made by ballot initiative.

STEPNER: It does become very difficult. And we in California have a long history of fighting affordable housing through ballot initiatives that go way back.

ST. JOHN: Well --

STEPNER: And I can't speak to Encinitas, whether that was part of their discussion. But I think in many ways, growth is inevitable. And we have to find ways of handling it and guiding it in our community. We're going to grow by another million people in the next 15 or 20 years.

ST. JOHN: Important to note.

STEPNER: And we can handle a lot more growth if we do it right. And I think that's always the question. I think density is a mythological number. And height limits are perhaps arbitrary.

ST. JOHN: As an architect, you know that you can have high and dense buildings without --

STEPNER: You can, that's right.

ST. JOHN: Without detriment to the community.

STEPNER: And I think a lot of it is reacting to the quality of the development. In many cases, in fear of who might live next door to us. I'm just saying that happens.

ST. JOHN: Okay. There's a couple of pretty controversial projects in the news at the moment. Lilac Hills out there in Valley Center. It's being proposed for 1,700 homes for an area zoned in the county's general plan for 100 homes. Bruce, have you heard from people in Valley Center who are interested in your initiative process because they are looking for ways to fight that project?

EHLERS: I have heard from them, not about the initiate you have lately, but in previous discussions.

ST. JOHN: So Mike, is this something you see as being an issue? There are more communities looking at the possibility of adopting Encinitas' strategy to have more local control over planning? And what do you see as being the problem if that's the case?

STEPNER: First I want to disclose that I have done a little design advisory work with Lilac Hills a few years ago. I think people are afraid of change. They have a community, they want to maintain that character, and they don't know if the developments are appropriate or not. And they want that control. I don't know whether the ballot box planning is the ideal tool

EHLERS: Think more civic engagement, more discussion, presentation of what could be, and how we want to do it, and what kind of quality of development we want is probably more appropriate.

ST. JOHN: Bruce?

EHLERS: I think I know Lilac Hills. Was that the project that the road got onto the planning document without going through the local planning --

ST. JOHN: Well, it's in the same area.

EHLERS: I don't know which project it is exactly. Buff I think that previous example where the road was added without going through the planning group in North County, it shows how the current planning process can be so fatally flawed that the local residents will resort to ballot box planning. That's a good example.

ST. JOHN: I think that could be escort of the nub of the issue, whether local residents feel that the planning process is so fatally flawed they have to resort to ballot box planning. But Mike, and unfortunately we only have a minute left, what would you say is the risk that we face if all our communities start resorting to ballot box planning?

STEPNER: I think we react to sound bite, we react to a fear of an issue. And we really don't discuss comprehensively what we want for our community. How we want to get there, and we engage everybody. We just react and polarize. And I think that's always the danger. We do that with the initial planning process as well. But ballot box planning locks us in.

ST. JOHN: Locks us in. And we're going to grow by a million people in the next few years.

STEPNER: They got to go somewhere.

EHLERS: It's interesting. Because in Encinitas prior to prop A, we went through a couple rounds of traditional planning run by staff that came to conclusions that the vast majority of the people did not accept, and that's where prop A came from.

ST. JOHN: Well, a good debate, and I'm sure it's one that's going to keep oncoming up. I'd like to thank my guests. Thank you both very much.

STEPNER: Thank you.

EHLERS: Thank you.