Why It Makes Sense for Developers to Go to the Ballot Box in California

It may seem understandable for developers to resort to the ballot box after encountering difficulty with a planning commission or city council, but in California it makes sense even for cities like Moreno Valley that are friendly to new development.

4 minute read

June 14, 2016, 6:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Lake Perris

The Marina at Lake Perris State Park in Moreno Valley, California. | Jim Feliciano / Shutterstock

There's a huge payoff for developers to qualify ballot measures so voters can approve their developments without having to go the normal governmental route. It comes in the form of bypassing the expensive and time-consuming environmental review process.

What's more, there's a good chance that after the measure qualifies for the ballot by collecting the appropriate number of valid signatures on their petition, voters may never decide it because the city council has the option of adopting the initiative outright, thus avoiding the expense of what may be a special election.

"The advantage for developers is clear: Projects approved by ballot measures avoid legal challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)," writes Ian Lovett of The New York Times' Los Angeles bureau.

Walmart lays out roadmap to sidestep CEQA

Walmart spearheaded this CEQA bypass approach in their initiative to expand their Sonora store in Tuolumne County, California. Rather than put the measure before the voters, the Sonora City Council adopted it.

The California Supreme Court affirmed Walmart’s strategy in a 2014 decision rejecting a challenge to the [store's] expansion... An elected board, the court ruled, may approve a ballot measure petition without a special election, and that project can then bypass an environmental review.

The court ruling offered “a road map” for how to avoid the environmental review process, said Richard Frank, a former chief deputy attorney general in California who began working on Environmental Quality Act cases shortly after the law was signed in 1970.

Although environmental activists are leaning on state officials to close the loophole, no new legislation has been proposed this year.

Lovett reports from Moreno Valley, California a young city of 193,000 in Riverside County that would seem friendly to new development. It features a "Developer Info" tab on its home page:

Moreno Valley has a Pro-business Philosophy

The City of Moreno Valley is committed to your business’ success and will serve as a partner through every phase of the development process. 

But "[a]fter the City Council approved plans to build the largest warehouse complex in the United States, environmental groups sued, contending that the complex would add nearly 70,000 car and truck trips a day to an area that already had some of the most polluted air in the country," writes Lovett. Riverside County also filed suit, as did the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

So backers of the project gathered signatures for a ballot initiative, and then the Council approved it outright — shielding the project from environmental lawsuits.

Jeffrey Giba, one of the councilmen who supported the project, called the environmental lawsuits “an extortion racket.”

“I don’t want to spend my city’s money on a special election when we already approved the project once,” he said.

The fight is not over. The South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a second lawsuit.

Carlsbad citizens fights back

The Moreno Valley World Logistics Center is but one of many examples Lovett cites to illustrate how developers and city councils use the initiative process to bypass CEQA. One notable failure of the process was seen recently in Carlsbad, a wealthy community in northern San Diego County.

Developer Rick J. Caruso had an option to purchase 203 acres near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. "Under the proposal, nearly 27 acres, or roughly 15%, would have been a shopping and entertainment center, and the remaining 177 acres would have been agriculture, public trails, an outdoor classroom and habitat preservation," wrote Phil Diehl for the Los Angeles Times on March 3.

Carlsbad officials have said Caruso could apply for permits at any time to try to get the project approved through the city's conventional planning process, which requires a review under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

The developer had hoped to avoid that process by gathering signatures on a citizens initiative, which was approved by the Carlsbad City Council in August after a city study deemed it met CEQA standards. But opponents launched a referendum that overturned the council's approval.

Measure A was placed on the ballot on February 23 special election. Citizens for North County "spent about $100,000 in the months leading up to the election" opposing the development while "Caruso Affiliated had spent about $10.5 million since May trying to rally public support for the project," writes Diehl.

Opponents won by about four percent. But this referendum and subsequent victory may be the exception to the rule.

Correspondent's note: A 2012 Planetizen post is based on a Lovett piece on CEQA, but this was about one of many unsuccessful attempts to legislatively reform the law that Gov. Jerry Brown called "the Lord's work."

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 in The New York Times

Black and white Rideshare Pick-Up Zone sign

The Slow Death of Ride Sharing

From the beginning, TNCs like Lyft and Uber touted shared rides as their key product. Now, Lyft is ending the practice.

June 1, 2023 - Human Transit

Urban sidewalk shaded by large mature trees

Cool Walkability Planning

Shadeways (covered sidewalks) and pedways (enclosed, climate controlled walkways) can provide comfortable walkability in hot climates. The Cool Walkshed Index can help plan these facilities.

June 1, 2023 - Todd Litman

Traffic on the 405 interstate freeway through the Sepulveda Pass at Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles, California

Congestion Pricing Could Be Coming to L.A.

The infamously car-centric city is weighing a proposed congestion pricing pilot program to reduce traffic and encourage public transit use.

May 30, 2023 - Los Angeles Times

Two blue and white tents on a paved bike trail under an overpass in San Diego, California with palm tree and vegetation on one side

How San Diego Camping Ban Could Impact Neighborhoods

An ordinance supported by the city’s mayor would bar people from sleeping on the street near shelters or services, but critics say it will simply push people to other neighborhoods and put them farther away from the supportive services they need.

June 8 - Voice of San Diego

Small white one-story building with Maggie Hathaway Golf Course sign with American flag on flagpole and green lawn

Expanding Access to Golf in South Los Angeles

L.A. County’s Maggie Hathaway Golf Course getting up to $15 Million from U.S. Open Community Legacy Project to expand access to the sport in South L.A.

June 8 - Los Angeles Times

Wood-frame two-story housing under construction

Opinion: Failed Housing Bills Could Signal California-Style Housing Crisis in Texas

Legislators in a state that so often touts its policies as the opposite of California’s defeated several bills that would have made housing construction easier, leading to concerns that a constricted housing market may exacerbate the housing crisis.

June 8 - The Dallas Morning News

Principal Planner – Advanced Plans

Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department

Planning Officer

City of Bangor

Planning Director

Park City Municipal Corporation

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.