A big box developer’s attempt to go to voters to get around state environmental laws has backfired. In April of 2005 the voters of the city of San Luis Obispo, California successfully overturned their City Council approval of a huge mega-mall located in the county on the edge of town. Instead of scaling back the project, the developer/owner Ernie Dalidio, backed by his developer partners, Scott Dabney of Texas and Bill Bird of Los Angeles, placed an initiative on the SLO County ballot that would allow them to build the biggest shopping center in the county with a Target and a Lowe’s big box (approximately 530,000 square feet total retail) on the city’s border, omitting most of the mitigations which were required by the city. But two years and nine months later, local residents have stopped the developers in their tracks. On January 31, 2008, a Superior Court Judge in the County of San Luis Obispo stuck down an ordinance, known as “Measure J,” handing the citizens group a major environmental victory against sprawl. The group called the Citizens for Planning Responsibly, along with the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO), were the plaintiffs that brought the lawsuit against Measure J. The judge’s ruling nullified an initative ballot measure that was adopted by voters in November of 2006. A trial in the case was held a year later in November of 2007. The groups argued that Measure J “was written to avoid the normal review process required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).” CEQA helps cities and towns to identify significant environmental impacts, to analyze alternatives and to mitigate or avoid significant impacts. ECOSLO says the City of San Luis Obispo prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a previously proposed Annexation Project on the same site. This EIR identified many significant environmental impacts including unacceptable traffic conditions, the conversion of 60 acres of prime agricultural land, and potential land use conflicts between the agricultural and non-agricultural uses. “The project proposed under Measure J is more intensive,” ECOSLO said, “yet the conditions in the initiative are weakened or eliminated in comparison to those proposed by the City of San Luis Obispo.” Measure J was written to allow the developer to escape the responsibility to mitigate its traffic impacts. Another concern is that Measure J failed to dedicate 65.5 acres of agriculture/open space as required by the City’s 1994 General Plan. The Judge ruled that Measure J “violates the California Constitution as an impropert attempt to exert administrative action and as an improper interference with ‘essential governmental functions.'” The Judge also ruled that Measure J violated a state law regarding land uses controlled by the Airport Land Use Program. The developers argued during the trial that Measure J was “a lawful exercise of the electorate’s power to enact land use legislation,” and that Measure J did not result in general plan inconsistencies. The Judge wrote, “Measure J purports to amend the general plan and zoning regulations to allow for a specific development project on the property.” As written, Measure J would have exempted this huge commercial project from “any subsequent discretionary reviews or approvals (e.g site plan review, conditional use permit, zoning clearance or environmental review under CEQA.” In short, the developer had written himself a blank check, and got the voters of San Luis Obispo county to go along. The developer was also allowed to spend a large sum of money to convince voters that Measure J should pass, while local citizens groups had little money to spend to block it. But now, years later, the measure is nullified, and the court has ordered the county not to implement Measure J.
It was only because of the determination of local citizens that this case was challenged in court, and the developers beaten. The use of a ballot question in an illegal way was also prevented. “We need to ensure that all projects are treated equally and subject to the same analysis and review,” ECOSLO said. The group called the initiative “a drastic departure from the current process that has the potential to allow significant, unmitigated environmental impacts.” For more background, go to www.ecoslo.org. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “San Luis Obispo.”