El Dorado County has long roiled with bitter political battles over new housing developments and perceived threats to the rustic Sierra foothills environment.
But Tuesday night, voters overwhelmingly rejected initiatives that proponents argued would protect rural community boundaries and ban new subdivisions that threaten to gridlock Highway 50 with traffic. They also elected two new county supervisors, Michael Ranalli and Sue Novasel, who both campaigned against the initiatives and “land use planning through the ballot box.”
Measures M, N and O went down to ignominious defeat in the face of more than $1 million in campaign spending by real estate and development groups, including building interests proposing thousands of new homes for western El Dorado County. The political media blizzard – costing more than $20 per vote based on Tuesday’s turnout – broadcast a message that the county’s pastoral landscape was imperiled by the growth-control measures themselves.
“It means that even a good ballot argument and proposition is hard to win against $1 million,” said Bill Center, a former county supervisor and co-sponsor of Measure M. “It was basically an electoral carpet bombing with signs and mailings and robocalls and World Series ads. They ran the best campaign that money could buy.”
Proponents of the two principal growth-control initiatives, Measure M and Measure O, raised a little over $40,000 – compared to more than $866,000 alone from the Parker Development Co. The builder of the 4,700-home Serrano El Dorado Hills community is seeking zoning changes to build 3,236 homes and townhouses in nearby Marble Valley and 1,028 homes on the former El Dorado Hills golf course and another community site.
The No on M-N-O campaign effectively seized on concerns by the El Dorado County Farm Bureau that the growth-control initiatives would actually push development away from Highway 50, forcing unwanted housing and traffic onto farmland and into picturesque country settings lacking roads and services.
“El Dorado County voters supported and defended a carefully balanced general plan. Measure M, N and O would have upset that balance and thrown the county into chaos,” said Kirk Bone, director of governmental affairs for Parker Development.
Measure M would have blocked county approval of new residential communities if the California Department of Transportation determined that any stretch of Highway 50 west of Placerville was gridlocked or forecast to reach peaked congestion levels. It lost by a 58 to 42 percent margin.
Measure O, inspired by neighbors’ opposition to a planned 1,045-home subdivision in Shingle Springs, was an attempt to restrict high-density development in multiple areas of the county. It lost 67 to 33 percent.
Measure N was put on the ballot by a Sacramento commercial builders group as an anti-subdivision measure but was blasted by slow-growth advocates as a ruse to shift county road funds for Highway 50 improvements. It lost 75 to 25 percent.
Ranalli benefited in his supervisor race from opposition to the initiatives.
The Lotus wine-grape grower and former Intel executive campaigned on attracting new business to the county while protecting objectives of a 2005 general plan that called for “managed growth, open roads and quality neighborhoods.” He called the growth-control initiatives a “disastrous” option.
Ranalli defeated Howard Penn by a 53 to 47 percent margin in the race for 4th District supervisor in western El Dorado County. Penn, a business development consultant and former owner of the Sierra Nevada House hotel and restaurant in Coloma, was a co-author of Measure M.
In the District 5 race, Lake Tahoe school board member Novasel defeated Kenny Curtzwiler, a former major in the Nevada Army National Guard, by a 60 to 40 percent margin. Novasel opposed the growth-control initiatives. Curtzwiler took no position, saying he would support the will of voters.
Ranalli said Wednesday that voters sent a message: It is up to the Board of Supervisors to decide the county’s development future and what is needed to protect the regional environment.
“I had calls from voters who were actually frustrated by the decisions that were being put before them by the various ballot measures,” said Ranalli, who will replace outgoing District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs. “I get that. I think it was the intent of the county general plan to manage those (land use) things. And it is up to our elected officials to make those hard decisions.”
Penn, who had finished first among eight candidates in the June primary, wrapped his campaign in the banner of Measure M. He declared in his campaign: “Measure M is more important than I am.”
On Wednesday, Penn stood by his declaration.
“I took a hard look at what I believed in,” he said. “I thought I would put that out and, if the voters liked that, I was the right guy. And if the voters didn’t like that, then don’t put me in. … I realize that was an idealistic perspective.”
Penn said he believes defeat of the growth-control initiatives means that major housing developments “are going to be pushed through now” by county supervisors.
Ranalli received $15,000 in contributions from an El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce political committee heavily backed by development interests. But he said Wednesday that said he won’t be a rubber stamp for new construction.
Ranalli said proposed projects, including Marble Valley and San Stino, a controversial 1,045-home subdivision planned for Shingle Springs, are unlikely to be seriously considered by the county unless they are significantly scaled down and “evaluated for their consistency with the general plan, with road and water capacity” and compatibility with the foothills topography.
Bone said the county has authorized Parker Development to undertake environmental studies for its Marble Valley and Central El Dorado Hills developments. But, he said, “There will be a thorough and thoughtful discussion about the projects and any potential alternatives.”
Novasel, who will replace outgoing District 5 Supervisor Norma Santiago, said Wednesday that she hopes the Board of Supervisors will serve as “watchdogs for making sure we have open space and green areas and not urban sprawl.”
In particular, Novasel said, she wants to work to support a balanced growth plan to bring job-producing commercial development to Meyers, where Highway 50 drops into the Tahoe basin. “We want smart growth and economic vitality, promoting businesses and green spaces and making sure we protect the environment,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.