CAINE: Does Merced slow-growth initiative reflect a trend?

Merced County citizens have taken a cue from Stanislaus County — they're circulating a petition that would require voter approval for residential development on farmland. The purpose is to wrest control of land use from county supervisors.

If the group, Citizens for Quality Growth, can get enough signatures, the slow growth initiative would appear on the November ballot. Predictably, Merced County supervisors aren't happy about the prospect of losing control. Some claim citizens aren't informed enough to decide whether farmland should be covered with houses and strip centers.

There may have been a time when most San Joaquin Valley citizens were uninformed about land use, but that time is rapidly becoming distant history. Two supporters of the Merced County initiative, Jean Okuye and Cindy Lashbrook, are not only familiar with California land use law, they can also call on their long experience as local farmers to inform their decisions. In addition, Lashbrook can cite her position on the county planning commission as another credential for knowledge.

In Stanislaus County, citizen-activists include Bruce Frohman, Denny Jackman and Jeani Ferrari. All three are well-informed on local land-use decisions and all are increasingly familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act. Both Jackman and Frohman have political experience on the Modesto City Council. These are informed citizens very close to the ideal envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

And lest county supervisors think criticism of recent land use decisions comes only locally, they should look at what's happening at the state level. In September 2008, Gov. Scwharzenegger signed Senate Bill 375, a bill designed to limit sprawl. According to the governor's press release, SB 375 "provides emissions-reductions goals" and "incentives for local governments to follow new conscientiously planned growth patterns."

An increasingly aware citizenry has realized sprawl and loss of farmland cost money and degrade quality of life. The Internet has enabled these citizens to access and disseminate knowledge to an ever broader base of concerned valley residents. The result is a more knowledgeable electorate that is increasingly distrustful of local politicians.

On the surface, one might wonder why people seem to have abandoned the traditional political process in favor of initiatives. After all, wouldn't it be easier to simply support those candidates who represent their interests? But there has long been a disconnect between local voters and politicians, with voters generally rejecting growth proposals supported by supervisors and other elected representatives.

One problem is that few candidates for political office can afford to campaign without the kind of money generated by developers and business interests. The result has been domination of the traditional political process by donors who favor rapid growth. Slow-growth candidates have generally been outspent and discouraged from running at all by the need for campaign funds. That dynamic may soon change.

Just as the Internet has resulted in a core of more knowledgeable local citizens, it may soon enable elections to be less polluted by big money. Future elections may be determined by voters who nominate, support and elect candidates who emerge from the ranks of those who once promoted initiatives. The initiative process may then be replaced by a more traditional method: a return to elected representatives who represent broader constituencies.

Caine is a Modesto resident who teaches at Merced College. Write him at