Does ballot box planning make sense given recent results?

Four times in the past three years, developer-intitiated ballot measures, all in the North County, have appeared on local ballots.

All four times, they failed.

Despite spending millions on the elections and the campaigns, the development companies’ projects have been rejected by voters, usually by wide margins.

Which raises the question, will more developer-sponsored ballot measures appear in the future?

Some in the building industry hope not.

“We are categorically against ballot box planning,” said Borre Winckel, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Building Industry Association (BIA).

Whenever there is a citizen’s ballot measure regarding development, he said, bad information that hurts the industry accompanies the campaigns.

“Often, both parties are guilty of misinforming the debate, all sorts of emotional stuff is put on the table, and who gets screwed in the process are the people who need a new home to live in,” Winckel said.

Three of the four failed developments involved housing.

In 2014, Escondido residents were asked by the owner of the shuttered Escondido Country Club, Michael Schlesinger, to override a decision by the City Council that declared his property permanent open space. He went directly to voters seeking permission to build 430 houses on the 109-acre golf course, but despite investing well over a million dollars and outspending opponents 10-1, the measure failed by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

Early last year, Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso spent roughly $10.5 million trying to persuade Carlsbad voters to allow him to build a shopping center and entertainment center near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon near Interstate 5. Opponents spent roughly $100,000 fighting the proposal, yet won by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.

Then, a year ago this month, Accretive Investments spent more than $4 million asking voters to allow it to build a 1,700-unit, master-planned community called Lilac Hills Ranch just east of Interstate 15 in Valley Center. Opponents, again being vastly outspent but getting their message out via social media, nevertheless won the countywide vote 63.5 percent to 36.4 percent.

And just this week, Poway voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have rezoned part of the StoneRidge Country Club to allow club owner Michael Schlesinger (again) to begin the process of building 180 luxury condominiums. Schlesinger spent close to $1 million on the election and campaign compared to virtually nothing by opponents. Yet, Measure A was defeated by a 62 percent-38 percent margin.

Winckel said typically the initiatives are designed to circumvent the normal planning process.

“It goes outside of our political structure,” he said. “You have county supervisors, or planning commissions and city councils for that purpose. That’s their job.

“We really detest this approach.”

Some San Diego political consultants who make their living representing candidates and issues declined to comment for this story, saying they have represented both sides on such questions.

But longtime political consultant Larry Remer offered the following:

“The key thing is (all of the measures) have failed,” he said.

“Will they all fail in the future? Probably not. Eventually, somebody will figure out how to get it passed.”

Remer said the fact that the measures haven’t succeeded “clearly demonstrates that the public is smart, or at least the public can be smart.”

The voting public is by nature skeptical, Remer added. “Voters are always thinking ‘what’s the catch,’” he said. Sometimes, he said, the only “catch” needed is to get the word out that the initiatives are being funded by the developer.

“In these cases,” he said, “the developers are doing this to try and get around the rules and there is a fundamental element of unfairness about that which seems to be checkmating their ability to do this.”

A powerful tool being used by underfunded opponents is social media.

In Poway, the opposition organized so late in the special election process that there wasn’t even a ballot argument against the measure included in material sent to voters by the Registrar’s office.

But by posting on social media sites such as Facebook and Nextdoor, and by sending email blasts, they were able to get their concerns out to the public, even if in some cases they were overblown or only partially valid.

James Gordon, who was one of the organizers of the opposition to last year’s Lilac Hills measure, credited their success to their use of “a sophisticated social media campaign” that reached more than a million voters in the county.

“The bottom line is the community pulled together,” he said shortly after the election. “We educated the voters who saw that this was just a developer trying to skirt the rules and they sent the message that developers need to play by the rules.”

Two of the largest housing developments in the works right now in North County eschewed the ballot technique and are instead gearing up for normal planning decisions by elected representatives.

The Newland Sierra project, a proposal to build 2,135 homes just west of Interstate 15 roughly five miles north of Escondido, will likely go before the county’s Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors in late spring or summer.

The same is true in Escondido, where a developer wants to build 550 luxury homes in the San Pasqual Valley in the hills north of the zoo’s Safari Park. The Safari Highlands Ranch project will likely be considered by the Escondido City Council next spring.

jharry.jones@sduniontribune.com; 760/529-4931; Twitter: @jharryjones

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