Council wants an in-depth study of the Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative before scheduling the proposal for a November vote.

The measure has gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot and City Council had the option this week of scheduling it for a vote, passing it into law or asking for a study. They opted for a study with a long list of subject areas.

LUVE would require voter approval for development over 32 feet, for development agreements and for significant updates to zoning rules. There are exemptions for some kinds of affordable and senior housing.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said he has been a longtime proponent of slow-growth policies and referenced his history of refusing developer and corporate donations when advocating for the study.

“So I make my decisions based on what I feel is better for the residents of the city who I represent,” he said.

McKeown said the city had a responsibility to ask for a study.

“I obviously feel studying it is the responsible thing to do,” he said. “It would make no sense whatsoever for this council to proceed without authorizing a study which is specifically part of the code just as much as it’s the right of people to circulate petitions and do a referendum.”

The council proposed a long list of study areas including the proposal’s affect on the consistency of existing zoning laws, availability and location of housing, use of vacant parcels, traffic impact, ability to rebuild after an earthquake, affordable housing production, a comparison to similar rules passed in other cities, LUVE’s fiscal impact, displacement and gentrification, funding for infrastructure or public projects, clarification on rules for senior housing and impact on business recruitment and retention.

City Manager Rick Cole cautioned against study areas that deviate into economic forecasting.

“Given the speculative nature of economic studies, I’m on more comfortable ground analyzing what the initiative would actually do and not do rather than getting into very much speculative impact of what the outcome of potential elections would be,” he said.

Cole said that by design the measure will slow development but trying to predict by how much and what the economics of that slowdown would be is too complicated.

“There is no question there would be some chilling effect on development, even development that people might vote for,” he said. “There will projects that simply won’t be brought forward because the developer or property owner isn’t going to want to go through the risk and the lengthy process of not only getting a permit but taking that permit to a vote.”

According to Cole, anti-development movements typically occur towards the end of a real estate boom and he said economic factors could be more important to slowing development than local regulation. However, trying to predict those economic factors is beyond staff’s capabilities.

“We live in California, there have been real estate boom and busts since 1849,” he said. “You can just go back through the history and pretty much every seven years there’s a bust and that lasts for 3, 5, 7 years and so typically there’s an effort to close the door when the cow is halfway out of the gate.”

Council quickly coalesced around the concept of a study but was divided over the possibility of drafting a competing ballot measure. Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich repeatedly tried to put discussion of an alternative on the table.

“I would like to see if there’s any feasible alternative to this and I would like to give staff direction to look at what a feasible alternative might be that is, call it, less extreme than this measure but that might allow for a vote of the people on projects that are larger than perhaps any of us want to see in the city,” she said.

Staff and other councilmembers rebuffed her attempts.

“My concern is we’re already into June and trying to craft an alternative measure that may or may not really be an alternative to LUVE for some people, I just think were asking for trouble,” Councilwoman Gleam Davis said. “The second thing I want to point out is that drafting an alternative measure, no matter how specific you are, is a little bit like picking a number between 1 and 1,000 and try and figure out which one everyone is going to like because we can draft an alternative measure but if it doesn’t to some extent materialize if you will, if it isn’t a true alternative to the Residocracy alternative, then you just have two zoning measures on the ballot.”

Cole said there wasn’t enough time to draft a thoughtful alternative proposal and said ballot box planning undermines the careful work done during the public process.

“The advantage of what we do here, as imperfect as it is, is we follow the Brown Act, everything is excruciatingly hashed out in public by publicly elected officials or by publicly appointed citizen volunteers on your Planning Commission,” he said. “When you take on something complicated like land use and you ask us to go away for two weeks and dream up our own ideas and then present them in public, we’re going to give you something half-baked, and I think part of the problem with ballot box planning is you often end up voting on half-baked initiatives.”

Staff will return to council within a month with the results of the study. At that time, the council can pass the measure into law or schedule it for a public vote in November.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...