Settling Land Disputes with Referendums

Government and real estate development can be a very challenging mix. 

In a perfect world, both sides would work together to improve life for area residents. Developers would follow the dictates of free market, building housing and commercial centers that are needed for the community, and elected officials would enact policies for the good of their constituents. 

In reality, there are many conflicting motivations and deals that come into play that may end up either negatively impacting residents’ way of life or blocking growth that would benefit the local population.

In some situations, local residents would stand to benefit from new development, but the city council is blocking construction for its own purposes and isn’t acting in the residents’ best interest.  

Other times the city council approves development that would change the character of an area and increase congestion without adding any real benefit. In those cases, there is another avenue open to the underdog: referendums.

What are Referendums?

There are three different types of referendum: advisory, legislative and popular. 

Advisory referendums are the least common and have the least direct impact. When the legislature wants to gauge public opinion for something, it can put an advisory referendum on the ballot. This will act as a public opinion poll and has no direct impact on what the legislature will do.

Legislative Referendums allow the governing body to put a measure on the ballot for popular vote. Legislative referendums pass with a much higher rate than other types of referendums because they are not usually controversial. Signatures on a petition are not required for legislative referendums.

Popular referendums allow voters to approve or repeal an act of the legislature. If the legislature passes a law that voters do not agree with, they have the option of gathering signatures on a petition to put the matter before the people to vote on. 

Usually petitioning must take place in the 90-day period after the law is passed. If enough signatures are gathered and verified before the deadline, the new law appears on the ballot at the next election, to be decided by popular vote. 

The new law is suspended until after the next general election once the needed signatures are gathered.  If citizens vote to approve the law, it goes into effect. If voters reject the law, it does not go into effect. 

Popular referendums are used in 24 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington.

History of Referendums

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new kind of American revolution was brewing.

Tired of being at the mercy of the monopolies and frustrated by what appeared to be back-door dealings, a new generation of leaders emerged, who wanted to promote the interests of the common people in government. It was the beginning of the Populist and Progressive movements.

The leaders called for referendums, among other changes, to put government back to working for the will of the people instead of working to promote the will of Special Interest Groups.

Referendums give the people the opportunity to repeal an act of legislature through popular vote. 

This is important in cases when the governing body, such as the city council, has passed legislation to benefit someone other than the people that it serves.

Golden Door vs. Newland Sierra

Such was the claim when the San Diego County Supervisors rezoned the Merriam Mountains area, directly west of Interstate 15, near the cities of Escondido, San Marcos and Vista, by amending the San Diego County General Plan.

A real estate developer called Newland Sierra intended to build 2,135 homes on the 1,985-acre site. The development was planned to feature 81,000 square feet of commercial space, a 6-acre school site, 35.87 acres of public and private parks, 19.2 miles of multi-use community trails, an equestrian staging area and 1,209 acres of open space.

The new development’s plans included environmentally-friendly features, such as solar panels, electric-vehicle charging stations, xeriscaping and gray-water systems. 

Local area residents and environmental groups opposed the amendments, and there was one other affected party with the resources to make a difference—the Golden Door, a well-known uber-luxury spa in the area. 

Golden Door’s owner, Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist and Carlyle Group co-founder, Bill Conway, purchased the spa for $24.8 million in 2012.

The noise of construction and blasting to clear the Merriam Mountains would destroy the quiet calm of the locale, driving away clientele who are currently willing to pay over $10,000/week including tax, to search for inner peace. Blasting is expected to last five years.

With only 30 days to collect needed to collect 67,000 verified signatures, the Golden Door built a strong campaign against the new development, putting an impressive army of paid signature gatherers to work. 

They needed to work very hard to counter the signature blockers, hired by Newland Sierra, that appeared wherever the petitioners appeared. 

Because a portion of the signatures gathered will be illegible, not from voters that are registered in the county or duplicates, it’s crucial to gather more signatures than specified to ensure that enough of the gathered signatures will be verified. The professional petition circulators met the deadline with ease, presenting the petition with approximately 117,000 signatures.  

With enough signatures gathered to qualify for the ballot, Supervisors were given the option of rescinding the General Plan Amendment but voted 4-0 against rescinding. The amendment would not have gone into effect either way. 

The signatures gathered in 2018 will hold off development and put the issue on the 2020 ballot in the next general election.  If the referendum is approved by the voters in 2020, the Merriam Mountains will be preserved, along with the tranquility of the Golden Door Spa, for the immediate future.

One Paseo

Another controversial land dispute took place in Carmel Valley, California. 

The Carmel Valley City Council had two votes on the issue, deciding 7-2 and 6-1 to approve the 1.45 million square foot development on 23.6 acres. The proposal, by Kilroy Realty Corporation, included shops, offices, more than 600 housing units, landscaped open space, walkways and bike paths.

Supporters of the project positioned it as an environmentally friendly development that would enhance the individuality of the community. It would help the local economy by boosting property values and bringing more traffic to local businesses.

The project would bring thousands of jobs and Kilroy would pay over $38 million in fees to benefit the local area: $23 million for schools, facilities, infrastructure and affordable housing and over $15 million to local school districts and community facilities.

The group that opposed the plan was called Protect San Diego Neighborhoods. Backed by Donahue Schriber Realty Group, the owner of a nearby shopping center, they claimed that the development would increasing traffic congestion and bring down property values by constructing 9-story buildings that would obstruct the view of area homes.

They argued that the city council was acting against the advice of the San Diego Planning Commission in order to follow the dictates of a real estate developer and that, as one of the densest mixed-use projects in San Diego, the center would create traffic gridlock.

The opponents launched an aggressive campaign, hiring a battallion of paid signature gatherers to collect the approximately 34,000 signatures that they needed in order to qualify their referendum for the ballot. They turned over 61,000 signatures in to the county clerk for verification.

The project’s supporters launched their own campaign, collecting signature withdrawls. Kilroy supporters turned in 29,552 requests for signature withdrawals, turning up the fire on this very controversial issue. If the same proportion of signatures was valid on each side, the opponents would not have enough signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot.

At the end of the verification process, the county registrar of voters found that only 3,220 requests to withdraw signatures were valid, due to the fact that the majority of the signers had not signed the original petition.

The validity of the 61,000 signatures gathered by the opposition proved to be much more successful and the referendum was qualified for the ballot. 

This left the city council to decide whether they should rescind their approval of the development or put the issue to be decided by the voters. The city council’s vote was delayed while the referendum backers negotiated with Kilroy. The city council voted to rescind their approval after Kilroy and its opponents came to an agreement for a smaller, less-dense development.

When Referendums Succeed

Although it may seem a simple matter to get the vote into the hands of the people, there are actually a number of factors that work against groups who wish to get their referendum on the ballot, including tight deadlines and a high number of verified signatures required. 

The referendums that make it to the ballot are usually well funded and can afford to hire an experienced consultant with a strong record of positive outcomes to run the campaign. An organization such as Let the Voters Decide has a legion of professional petition circulators at the ready with the experience to get results.

Why Referendums Matter

CIVICUS, a global civil activist alliance conducted a year-long international research initiative on democracy. The study surveyed the views of thousands of people in almost 80 countries worldwide and discovered that majority want to have a direct in political decision-making, but feel that they are excluded from the decisions that impact them.

Referendums allow citizens to take part in the political process beyond electing representatives. They allow the people to meaningfully and directly voice their opinions on particular matter that affect them directly. Through referendums, they can help prevent representative governments from favoring the needs of Special Interest Groups and hold them to making decisions that are truly in the best interest of the public.

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