Deferring Land Use Decisions to Initiative Petition Can Backfire

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By Mike Saint, The Saint Consulting Group
SF waterfrontOne of the problems with deciding land use by referendum or initiative petition is that voters are focused on just one project and its immediate impact. They will not see or evaluate the broader impacts, and they will not explore possible unintended consequences — consequences  they may not like.
I suspect that while the land use ballot process sounds democratic, many elected local officials lean towards it because they would rather “let the people decide”  instead of voting themselves to approve or disapprove a controversial land use, especially when it  could end up making half the voters hate them because of their vote.
The new San Francisco law that requires voter referendums on waterfront development projects (described here)  reminds me of a case from Southern California from several years ago. The people in an upscale suburb of LA did not want Home Depot coming to town. So they passed a law by initiative petition that barred any retail store of more than 90,000 square feet. Home Depot never built.
Then a few years later, a developer wanted to erect a lifestyle center with a Neiman Marcus and a Nordstrom’s. The residents badly wanted those stores but the city council was powerless to help. Councils in California have no right to overturn an initiative petition passed by voters – only the voters themselves, in another ballot measure, can do that.
No one fighting the Home Depot had ever considered that in banning Home Depot, they would be banning Nordstrom’s. Just another unintended and unwelcome consequence of land use approval by referendum.
Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email