Growth, one of the area's most important challenges, makes its way onto a Stanislaus County ballot next month for the first time since 1992 with two competing measures.
Despite millions of dollars riding on the outcome, those with the most at stake, homebuilders, largely are sitting out the debate over Measures E and L. They hate both.
If either passes, county supervisors stand to lose the most in terms of control over growth decisions. They have worked hard to negate Measure E and are trying to derail it with Measure L, which would siphon off less of their power.
Some say county leaders hope to confuse people, who might vote "no" on both when confronted with two options on an irritating topic. But make no mistake: They are very different measures.
One, Measure E, was written by longtime controlled- growth advocates and qualified for the ballot in 2006 after about 16,000 voters signed petitions. The League of Women Voters supports this initiative.
The other, Measure L, was written by appointed county officials and placed on the ballot by their bosses, county supervisors, as a less-offensive (to them) counterstrike to Measure E. The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau favors this option.
Neither side has raised money or is actively campaigning, though backers of Measure E produced a leaflet and a newspaper ad, and wrote a couple of pieces for The Bee's Opinions pages.
If both fail Feb. 5, supervisors would be free to continue with housing projects in unincorporated areas as they have in the past. If voters approve both measures, only the one with the most "yes" votes will become law.
Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh and former Councilman Denny Jackman are the authors of the initiative, formerly known as Stamp Out Sprawl, and no one submitted a ballot argument opposing it. The measure would require countywide votes of the people to convert farmland for housing projects in unincorporated areas.
County supervisors managed to stall this initiative for nearly two years, giving them time to approve a hefty Salida growth plan -- without a vote of the people -- and time to come up with a watered-down countermeasure.
What's good about Measure E:
It should drive growth into cities, which are better able to provide efficient urban services: sewer, water and law enforcement, for example.
Less growth in the country means more farmland preservation, supporters say.
Fewer badly planned towns would cut down on millions of dollars each year of county subsidies to those unincorporated urban areas.
What's bad about Measure E:
Wresting control of growth from supervisors, critics say, unwittingly places it in the hands of developers. They might sway public opinion with slick, expensive campaigns.
"Whoever has the most money," said Kevin Chiesa, president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
Loss of local control.
Because much of the county's population is concentrated in a few cities, voters there might control outlying areas. For example, voters in Modesto and Turlock could kill sensible projects near Newman or Knights Ferry, whose people would proportionately have little say.
"The initiative would result in mob rule and ballot-box planning," said Steve Madison, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Central California.
No restrictions on ranchettes, a low-density form of sprawl abhorred by most people in favor of slow growth.
County officials placed it on the ballot, but are prevented by state law from actively campaigning. The measure would create a 15-person commission charged with rewriting the county's general plan, a document guiding growth.
What's good about Measure L:
Passage would start a two-year moratorium on new homes in unincorporated areas, except those already in the pipeline.
People throughout the county would vote on the new general plan, a departure from supervisors' normal power. And future changes would require a four-fifths "supermajority" vote of supervisors, up from the current three-fifths standard.
Supervisors could continue making decisions with the good of the entire county in mind, as opposed to developers pushing individual projects.
What's bad about Measure L:
First, the measure calls for a broad cross-section of the community to serve on the 15-member general plan rewrite commission. But supervisors would appoint all of the members.
Second, the measure's guidelines are squishy on what the rewrite commission should do. It repeatedly states that members would "consider" various growth-control suggestions.
Third, supervisors could have the final say after all. If the commission produced a poor rewrite and voters turned it down more than once, supervisors ulti- mately could impose their will.
"We're not convinced the Board of Supervisors has the capacity to use the input they receive," said Madison. The builders association on Wednesday sued the county over new rules requiring developers to preserve an acre of farmland for every acre consumed by homes.
Bad track record.
Even if voters approved a new general plan, it still would be up to supervisors to use it when considering growth proposals. Critics claim that supervisors for years have given lip service to channeling growth to cities, while approving thousands of homes in the country.
"Every time the supervisors have done it, it has been fairly significant and disastrous," Marsh said. About half of the county's underfunded housing developments are unincorpor-ated islands surrounded by Modesto, he noted.
The moratorium would not apply to many thousands of homes already proposed, principally in Salida and Keyes.
It's entirely redundant.
State law suggests a general plan rewrite every five to 10 years. It's been 14 in Stanislaus County.
Before putting L on the ballot, the county had planned to start a rewrite this year, said Planning Director Ron Freitas. His people have been collecting a special fee for several years to pay for studies and consultants.
County Chief Executive Of- ficer Rick Robinson said he believes so strongly in provisions of Measure L that he would ask supervisors to adopt them even if it fails at the ballot box.
"One (E) is action," Jackman said. "One (L) is a continuation of the status quo."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.