Merced initiative targets growth

MERCED — A new slow-growth initiative, backed by the Merced County Farm Bureau and others, could help put the brakes on building on county farmland if enough signatures are collected before the November election.

The "Save Farmland" initiative, the first countywide initiative in recent memory, proposes to bring almost all new residential developments on county agricultural land before voters instead of leaving the decision up to the Merced County Board of Supervisors.

The initiative would lock in such rules until 2040.

"If zoning is changed from agriculture to housing, this would be taken to the people as a vote," said Jean Okuye, treasurer of Citizens for Quality Growth, the political action committee set up to back the initiative. She is also the Farm Bureau's vice president.

If passed, the initiative would mean a victory for proponents of slow growth and farmers who say unchecked suburban sprawl threatens the economic life-blood of Merced County. A victory, which some lawmakers said would rob them of their ability to govern, could mean a major shift in how land-use decisions are made in Merced County.

Much like state initiatives, the measure would put large development decisions in the hands of voters, passing on often-confusing and difficult choices to an uninformed electorate already deluged with state propositions, said some lawmakers.

"My opinion is that ballot measures for land-use decisions represent a failure of county government," said Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. Taking such decisions out of the hands of elected officials and handing them over to voters only would cause additional problems, she said.

Nonetheless, Kelsey said she understands the frustration of the people behind the measure, because the county has failed to plan in a responsible manner in the past. "The fact that it's being proposed reflects badly on the Board of Supervisors, with our choices regarding land use," she said.

Supervisor Hub Walsh said people who oppose growth should use the general plan update as a venue for their concerns, not an initiative. The initiative, said Walsh, would take important decision-making power from the "folks elected to make those decisions."

Planner supports measure

Cindy Lashbrook, a county planning commissioner in favor of the initiative, said the county government needs a brake on growth.

"I just think it will make people think a little bit longer and more completely about some of these projects," she said. In the past, she added, the Board of Supervisors hasn't made the most balanced development decisions. The measure would protect open space and ag land from unchecked sprawl, she said.

The initiative already has raised more than $15,000, much of which has yet to be reported, said "Save Farmland" spokesman Alan Schoff.

Citizens for Quality Growth received $1,000 from Okuye, and $5,000 from the county Farm Bureau, according to records obtained from the county registrar of voters.

According to the initiative's Web site, 7,620 signatures have been collected and were turned in to the county May 3. To qualify for the ballot, the measure needs 4,196 valid signatures. The registrar of voters has until June 15 to certify the signatures.

A similar initiative passed in Stanislaus County in 2008.

Dubbed "Stamp Out Sprawl," Measure E captured 66 percent of the vote when it was passed.