Land use initiative qualifies for ballot

by Mark McDermott
Published February 21, 2008

The “Major Changes in Land Use” initiative has qualified for the ballot, and the City Council on Tuesday night agreed to put the matter before voters on Nov. 4.

The activist group Building a Better Redondo submitted 8,637 signatures on Dec. 31, and the Los Angeles County Clerk’s office last week verified that 6,390 of the signatures were valid. The threshold was 5,825 signatures, or 15 percent of the 38,831 registered voters in Redondo Beach.

If approved by voters, the initiative would require all residential zoning changes be put to a citywide public vote. Additionally, any development projects that would add significantly to traffic counts at key intersections throughout the city would trigger a public vote. Proponents say the initiative would democratize city planning; opponents, including every council member, say the initiative would drive away new investment in the city.

Building a Better Redondo chair Jim Light said the initiative, if approved, wouldn’t drive away investment but instead ensure that whatever development occurs is acceptable to residents.

“I think the planning department does not have a balanced approach to its zoning changes and city planning,” Light said. “This puts the power back on the side of the people and forces the city to come up with a more balanced approach. It has got to be a win-win – there will be something in it for the developer for him to invest…and some benefit for residents, not just an impact on the people. It lets investors know they have to come in with a balanced plan from the start.”

Lenore Bloss, chair of rival activist group Citizens Against a Flawed Initiative, said that “planning by ballot box” does not work. Potential investors, she said, already face risk in any project without having to add another level of uncertainty – whether or not their project will be understood in a brief description on a ballot.

“People will sign a petition based on information given from a total stranger, and they will sign a complex document believing that stranger is telling the truth,” she said. “That is very disheartening to me. It’s scary, actually. Likewise, if you have a major project proposed in the city, how many people are going to really analyze the implications of the project and understand it when it comes to a vote?”

This was the second initiative petition circulated in the last year. In June, the activist group submitted 6,988 signatures after circulating petitions for six months. The petitions fell 315 short as almost 1,500 signatures could not be validated by the county.

Opponents to the initiative argue that the group has ceased to be a “grassroots” movement, particularly since its most recent petition drive spent nearly $5,000 in hiring paid canvassers, including one canvasser from Los Angeles who was paid nearly $2,862. The Building a Better Redondo political action committee raised $22,543 last year.

Councilman Steve Diels, perhaps the most vocal opponent of the initiative thus far, said the group’s efforts would undermine democracy in the city by allowing a handful of people to “force their will” on city planning. He said the paid canvassing is indicative of the group’s lack of authenticity.

“That doesn’t sound very grassroots to me,” he said. “That sounds like it was paid for. It’s unfortunate. It’s kind of like a white collar riot – they are burning down their own city, legislatively or legally.”

Diels said the group will achieve the opposite of some of its stated goals – by drying up the city’s developers’ fees, it will make it less possible for the city to provide more park or open space and degrade quality of life rather than enhance it.

“It undermines the current planning process of the city and will make investment less attractive,” Diels said. “It will incapacitate the city, it will cost a lot of money and make the city more susceptible to lawsuits and make it a less attractive place to live, diminishing our quality of life.”

Don Vangeloff, who serves as treasurer of Building a Better Redondo, defended the group’s signature gathering and fundraising efforts.

“You still had people from this community that rallied, that put their money where their mouth is to get petitions circulated,” Vangeloff said. “People are busy. People support this, but they got burnt out. It’s not like anybody got rich on this. What we are talking about is a few thousand dollars.”

Light said that 75 percent of signatures on the petitions were collected by non-paid residents, and said that opponents were trying to use smoke screens to confuse voters.

“Which is the more grassroots?” Light asked. “Zoning proposed by a developer or planning staff and approved by five councilmen, or over 68 residents spending their free time gathering over 6,000 resident signatures, twice…Our grassroots unpaid signature gatherers gathered a total of over 13,000 signatures for this initiative.”

The council contemplated putting the initiative on the state primary election ballot in June. Councilman Pat Aust argued that this would be more reflective of the type of voters who participate in future elections should the initiative pass – those who are interested in municipal matters – rather than the larger and more general turnout that will occur in the November presidential election.

“Nobody is going to be excluded,” Aust argued. “Anybody can go vote…it’s just getting people who are interested in what is going on in this city to go out and vote. This is just an election that will be a precursor to what will happen.”

But Councilman Chris Cagle argued that the issue was so significant – requiring a change in the city’s charter – that as much participation as possible should be encouraged.

“I really think with something like this we need maximum participation,” Cagle said. “I just believe people will be able to figure out the issue if we give people time for them to absorb the issue, and we give opponents and proponents plenty of time to get out their message.”
The council approved a Nov. 4 election date in a 4-0 vote, with Aust abstaining. ER