Spending Big at the Ballot Box to Build
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
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
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 â€¦ [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. "
â€¦ 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
The Greenbelt Alliance's Reid responded that his
organization does support projects that are "models of
development â€¦ 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
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
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:
â€¢ 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
â€¢ 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
â€¢ 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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