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Dueling citizens groups adopt rivals' tactics

A year ago, elections brought to power activists from Citizens for Responsible Growth on the heels of gaining popular voting rights for residents on development issues.

Since that time, exercising that power has proved awkward and CRG members find themselves in opposition to popular votes on development issues.

"It is kind of ironic," said City Commissioner Mike Finnerty. "It's a real struggle out here."

The City Commission stands against a resident-driven campaign to vote on a new comprehensive growth-management plan. The commission has also worked out plans to allow some small hotels to rebuild bigger than allowed now, all without the vote CRG had championed.

"What is going on around here?" asks Deborah Nicklaus, who was part of the old commission that resisted CRG. "Nothing in this city makes any sense."

Linda Chaney and Harry Metz were elected to the City Commission after leading CRG in its fight for the people's right to vote on building height, development density and changes to the city's comprehensive plan. Along with sometime-CRG supporters Commissioners Ed Ruttencutter and Mike Finnerty, the commission had an expressed tilt toward letting people vote on development.

But when another group followed CRG's path and gathered petitions in support of more hotel development, the City Commission said those petitions should not go on the ballot, a direct contradiction of the position CRG had originally taken.

Finnerty and others add that the situation is not a flip flop, that putting to vote the development proposals of the other group, Save Our Little Village, or SOLV, could be illegal according to the state's Growth Management Act. Letting people vote now might create legal problems later. But those are the same broad arguments earlier commissioners had made in opposing CRG's bid to have residents vote.

Part of the argument against the SOLV plan is that voting before state approval is illegal because it doesn't include public hearings and other processes. A voter-approved plan couldn't be adjusted without another vote.

"State law trumps local law," Chaney said. "You would have to vote after the whole process set out by state law in order to not be in conflict."

Chaney said she and other CRG members had always intended for all comp plan proposals to go before the standard public input process used statewide before it went to the ballot. She now wishes the CRG petitions had been more specific.

But the argument against the original CRG petitions was that they, too, violated state law, which doesn't contemplate referendum provisions. Voting on comprehensive plans only became legal after the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the CRG petitions were allowable.

In its defense of its present petitions, SOLV even uses the CRG case as part of its legal argument.

The CRG petitions and those of SOLV have different legal implications, so they are difficult to compare, but the situation in Pass-a-Grille is a more direct policy comparison.

Faced with property owners wishing to redevelop small hotels, the commission decided to help — not through a change in the comprehensive plan — but rather through a lengthy process that would not require a popular vote. Chaney said holding a vote would be bad for the city because the last election was so contentious.

But those who opposed the CRG petitions said ugly votes are what they were warning against but must now be tolerated.

"We're going to have these all the time now," Nicklaus said. "Welcome to the real world."

The Pass-a-Grille plan will require an increase in potential residential density, followed by an allowance for some hotels to rebuild legally. The whole plan may not even meet state approval, but it was deliberately designed to skirt a vote.

"That was the wrong way to do it," said Ruttencutter, who opposed the proposal. "The right way would have involved a vote of the people."

Finnerty said he went with the Pass-a-Grille plan for speed and comfort. He said he thought it could allow quick redevelopment and that once people saw that, they'd be willing to vote for further improvements. He said the same applies regarding a Corey Avenue development.

A hotel-marina project called Corey Landings was approved unanimously last month. But it rests on voter-approved "planned development" zoning that CRG is contesting on another development, the plan to rebuild Dolphin Village shopping center. Finnerty said he doesn't see how you can accept one and oppose the other.

The change from outsiders to legislators has caused some political hiccups, too. Ruttencutter was never a member of CRG, but when he supported a vote on its petitions, the group supported him. He runs afoul of them on issues like Pass-a-Grille, but is in step when it comes to opposition to the SOLV petitions.

Finnerty was elected with CRG support but now finds the group lashing out at him as he runs against Ruttencutter for mayor. CRG-sponsored campaign flyers identify Finnerty with tall hotels and overdevelopment, which is unproven, but is exactly what happened to Finnerty's opponent two years ago.

"You can't write a book like this," Nicklaus says. "Nobody would believe it."

Times Staff Writer Nick Johnson contributed to this report.

Dueling citizens groups adopt rivals' tactics 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 5:01am]

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