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Despite Aggressive Measure A Campaigns, Many Carlsbad Voters Undecided

Proposed lagoon development goes to voters next week

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, looking east toward 85 percent of the land that would be preserved under the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Plan, July 2015.

Aired 2/18/16 on KPBS News.

With the special election in Carlsbad less than a week away, it is impossible to predict the outcome of Measure A. Many voters remain undecided, in spite of weeks of passionate campaigning for and against the proposed development on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

Aired 2/18/16 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Despite Aggressive Measure A Campaigns, Many Carlsbad Voters Undecided

GUEST:

Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

With the special election in Carlsbad less than a week away, it is impossible to predict the outcome of Measure A. Many voters remain undecided, in spite of weeks of passionate campaigning for and against the proposed development on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

Campaign contributions

Campaign filings on the Carlsbad city website tell a compelling story of a David versus Goliath campaign, with “Yes on A” spending $7 million in 2015 and generating $2.3 million this year.

Developer Rick Caruso said it is all his own money. Carlsbad resident Catherine Miller, who works for the “Yes on A” campaign, confirmed that local voters and volunteers have not contributed money, only time.

The filings show tens of thousands of dollars being paid to consultants in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. Six television stations in San Diego have aired $660,000 worth of commercials promoting the plan in January alone.

Meanwhile, “No on A” raised $113,000 in 2015 and another $10,000 so far this year. In December, rival mall Westfield Corp., put $75,000 in the pot to oppose the measure. That leaves about $48,000, most of which came in checks for $100 to $500 from local residents.

DeAnn Weimer at the "No On A" Campaign headquarters in Carlsbad, Feb. 12, 2016.

At the bustling “No on A” campaign headquarters, DeAnn Weimer said opponents of the development may have less money but are rich in volunteers.

"We have a lot of people with blisters on their feet because they’ve walked so much," she said. "And now it’s so warm they are red as beets. They’re having those face-to-face discussions. That is what we are relying on — neighbor-to-neighbor conversations."

Turnout

The Registrar of Voters Office said voter turnout in most special elections is less than 50 percent. For example, San Diego’s mayoral election in November 2013 to replace Bob Filner drew 35 percent of the eligible voters. But the number of vote–by-mail ballots that have already been returned (about 40 percent ) suggest that at least half of Carlsbad voters will weigh in on this proposal.

Endorsements

Caruso, the developer behind Measure A, said he has the support of "everyone who really matters in Carlsbad."

This infuriates opponents, who say they feel bypassed and belittled.

The whole Carlsbad City Council and many others do support the plan for an upscale outdoor shopping center on the lagoon, with three miles of trails and open space.

Businesses

Weimer said the "No on A" campaign has a strong list of endorsers, too, but some local businesses that don’t like the plan are keeping quiet.

"It is very difficult, I think, for our businesses to be bold enough to come out," she said. "Because no one wants to make an enemy of City Hall, and so we’ve seen people be shy about doing that publicly.”

Catherine Miller at the "Yes on A" tent in Carlsbad, Feb. 12, 2016.

But Miller said it’s also a risk for local businesses to come out in support of Measure A.

"There’s a number that have come out publicly that have experienced somewhat of a letdown in business just because our opposition against Measure A have called for boycotts," Miller said.

One businessman who has staunchly endorsed the project from the beginning is lifelong farmer Jimmy Ukegawa, president of Carlsbad Strawberry Farms.

Rather than being displaced, the popular strawberry fields would be moved and made more sustainable, Ukegawa said. A new farm-to-table restaurant would be part of the development.

Ukegawa said if the project does not go through, continuing to grow strawberries on that land long term would be a difficult proposition.

The Westfield Corp. is the most obvious opponent of the project — the company’s nearest retail mall is 20 miles south in University City. Its opposition is a telling sign that Caruso’s "community gathering place" is not designed exclusively for local Carlsbad residents’ benefit, but rather aims to attract shoppers from all over the region.

Firefighters, police

Both the Carlsbad police officers and firefighters associations have come out in favor of the plan.

Carlsbad firefighters endorse Measure A, Jan. 13, 2016.

Chris Lawrence of the Firefighters Association said he’s for it because Caruso is committed to spending more than $9 million on road improvements.

The city staff analysis shows traffic will get worse, mainly because of overall regional growth and not primarily because of Caruso’s development.

The other financial benefit law enforcement sees in the plan is the projected $2.5 million a year in extra revenues it is projected to generate. City staff reached this conclusion after calling Caruso’s projected revenues "overstated".

The "No on A" campaign says even this estimate is overstated.

History has shown Carlsbad city staff have done a good job planning the city, Lawrence said. He believes the project will generate more revenues to add to public services like law enforcement.

Wiemer raised the question of whether firefighters supported the plan at a time when they were negotiating a raise from the city. However, Lawrence said the union is at the end of a three-year contract and will not be back at the bargaining table until next fall.

Besides environmentalists, "slow growthers" and professional surfers, an unexpected source of support for the opposition, opposition is coming from people involved in a fight over Carlsbad’s new Sage Creek High School, said Weimer.

The school is also on Cannon Road, and the city sued the school district under the California Environmental Quality Act because of traffic issues.

"Many people who were involved with the school at that time find it terribly ironic and somewhat hypocritical for the city now to not find those issues important enough to hold an outside developer to those standards, when they cost the school district $3 million," Weimer said.

It’s difficult to find anyone willing to predict the outcome of next week’s special election. In spite of the TV ads and the millions of dollars spent, Miller said it’s still a nail-biter.

"I think really it’s going to come down to election day. It really is," she said. "And who gets out, who feels passionate enough. And there’s a lot of undecided, I think, more so than I ever thought there were going to be."

Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly quoted the estimated annual revenue at $250 million, rather than $2.5 million.

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