Spending Big at the Ballot Box to Build

By Maria L. La Ganga, Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE, Calif. â€" A housing developer here in the Bay Area's bastion of slow growth is on track to spend nearly $68 per registered voter to pass a ballot measure that would expand the city's boundaries and add 2,450 new homes along one of Northern California's most congested highways.

By the time election day dawns Nov. 8, Pardee Homes is expected to have spent more than $3 million to convince just 43,598 registered voters that the company should be allowed to develop 1,400 acres of golden grassland surrounded by rolling hills off busy Interstate 580.

Pardee Homes' spending to put Measure D on the ballot and get it passed is a sign of just how much is at stake here in the Bay Area, still one of the nation's hottest housing markets. Similar measures â€" though with smaller price tags â€" are on the ballot in Antioch, Brentwood and Pittsburg, three other East Bay cities along busy Route 4 where developers are spending big to ease so-called urban growth boundaries and build homes in Contra Costa County.

If the measures pass, environmentalists warn Southern California, "You're next," said David Reid, a field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance, which opposes all four measures. "Developers, if they don't like the land-use plan in place, they're looking at the initiative process to change the land-use regulations so they can build what they want."

Paul Shigley, editor of the California Planning & Development Report, said that urban planning by ballot box is not that unusual, but that Pardee's level of campaign spending to sway a city historically opposed to growth is "incredible."

If Pardee's spending pays off and Measure D is approved, "it might be a lesson for developers in other parts of the state," Shigley said. "If it happens in Livermore, you might try it elsewhere … [and] it says how much money is at stake: 2,400 units; multiply that by $600,000 to $700,000 apiece. That's adult money."

Pardee's campaign spending has gone to write the initiative, hire signature-gatherers to get it on the ballot, bring in consultants to guide the company's political strategy and buy direct mail, television, radio and newspaper ads. "Today, elections cost a lot of money," said Carlene Matchniff, Pardee's vice president of community development, who figures her company will spend between $2.5 million and $3 million on the effort to build in an area called North Livermore.

According to financial disclosure filings, the developer had spent $2.69 million by Oct. 22, nearly three weeks before the election; the Friends of Livermore Committee, which opposes the measure, had spent about $140,000 in the same period. In contrast, Mayor Marshall Kamena said he expects his reelection campaign will cost about $35,000. Growth has been contentious in Livermore, which is about 45 miles east of San Francisco, for decades. North Livermore, where Alameda County considered a plan for 12,500 homes, has been a target of developer yearning for at least 10 years, Shigley said.

In 2000, voters in the county passed so-called urban growth boundaries that restrict cities and unincorporated communities in large swaths of the region.

Changes to those boundaries have to be approved by voters. Protecting the unincorporated North Livermore area was a major focus of the effort, which was supported by the Sierra Club. Since then, the Livermore City Council has approved its own urban limit line.

In a sign of how controversial Measure D is, Assistant City Manager Jim Piper directed inquiries to a dense, 304-page online analysis but said he "would not go on the record beyond the report."

It is the central issue in his own campaign for reelection, said Kamena, who has donated money to help stop the measure and believes that its passage would signal to the building industry that "we don't really need to look at local control. We only need to ride in on our horses with dollars flying everywhere, promise things to special-interest groups and we've bought the place."

His opponent, David Mertes, supports the measure, because three of the major components of the proposed Pardee development "are high on the priority list for Livermore residents," he said in a written statement. " … housing for families with differing needs and incomes, a site for a third high school, and a Community Sports Park."

During a prickly televised forum on the measure last week, Matchniff defended the project as a boon to the city, arguing that Pardee would pay the city $130 million more than the normal developers fees to fund various amenities and that 750 acres of the project would be set aside as an open space preserve.

In addition, 15% of the units would be affordable, 10% would be senior housing, and the development would improve â€" not worsen â€" traffic, she said, because it would bring homes closer to the region's jobs.

The Greenbelt Alliance's Reid responded that his organization does support projects that are "models of development … but this project didn't meet our minimum requirements."

Opponents call Pardee's proposal "sprawl development" and argue that housing should be built first within the city's boundaries.

They also say that it would worsen traffic congestion, destroy necessary habitat for threatened and endangered species and wipe out 18% of the world population of an endangered flowering plant called the palmate-bracted bird's-beak.

The three Contra Costa County measures on the Nov. 8 ballot were spurred by a sales tax that voters approved a year ago in an effort to link land use to transportation. For cities to get their share of the transportation tax revenues, they must agree with the county on urban limit lines or adopt their own lines.

As a result, developers in Antioch, Brentwood and Pittsburg sponsored ballot measures recommending broadened urban limit lines, which would include property they own but is currently outside of the county-drawn boundaries.

The ballot items are:

• Measure K would change Antioch's General Plan to include land owned by developer Roddy Ranch PBC and allow for the building of 700 homes. Under the initiative, none would be built until congested California Route 4 is widened, and the developer would have to contribute $1 million for road improvements beyond normal traffic mitigation fees. Roddy Ranch also would have to donate $1 million to the Antioch Unified School District.

• Measure L, which is supported by the Nunn development family, would expand Brentwood by about 2,000 acres and allow for the development of about 2,800 new homes.

• In Pittsburg, Measure P, which was created and paid for by developer Albert Seeno III and Discovery Builders, would increase the city's boundaries by about 1,400 acres. Backers and opponents disagree on how many houses it would permit, with the former saying the limit would be 1,700 homes and the latter pegging the number at 3,200.

Sam Singer, a spokesman for Seeno, said the current limit lines were drawn by the county and not by the city of Pittsburg. To him, "the straightforward reality of Measure P is it puts the power of future growth in the hands of the people of Pittsburg."

The measure, he said, "limits that growth to 1,700 homes on a restricted area of 531 acres and permanently sets aside 821 acres for open space and parks, and that's a good deal for the people of Pittsburg."

Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) argues otherwise. He is working to keep all three measures from passing and notes that they are not community-based initiatives because developers drafted them.

"I'm concerned that expanding the lines at this point â€" in the absence of any real infrastructure to support real growth â€" is going to create more congestion, gridlock, and lower the quality of life in the region," he said.

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