Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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An ongoing ballot drive in Irvine aiming to give voters final approval over new developments got top billing at this week’s annual business outlook breakfast from the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce.

Yet instead of a red carpet, the Chamber featured a full-fledged carpet bombing of the ballot initiative idea promoted by the citizens’ group, Irvine for Responsible Growth.

Indeed, the attention, along with the intensity of the attack from the Chamber left me wondering whether the initiative, spearheaded by a small band of local residents working with no budget, might just be registering in the polls.

When you don’t matter, they don’t mention you.

Along with the eggs and sausage breakfast, you could smell fear throughout this ballroom audience of nearly a thousand early rising executives.

These residents are getting in the way of big profit.

Karen Jaffe, who lives in Irvine’s Turtle Rock community near Concordia University and raised three kids in the city, is at the helm of a initiative drive that would require any big development requiring adjustments to the city’s general plan to go up for an automatic vote of the people.

Like many Irvine residents, Jaffe is frustrated by the recent spike in traffic around town, noting that the same arterial streets she once used to comfortably get her kids back and forth between things like soccer practice and school are now jam packed – increasingly used for commercial and residential developments.

It’s not the Irvine she was sold.

Like many land use activists, Jaffe said she started by engaging her local elected officials but increasingly got frustrated as she witnessed a city hall dominated by politicians, special interests and campaign cash.

“They are not listening,” Jaffee said. “They are cutting deals.”

She wants to take the politics out of development.

Jaffee and her volunteers need to collect 12,000 signatures by March to force a vote in November.

At Wednesday’s Chamber breakfast at the Hotel Irvine, Steve Churm – Chief Communications Officer for Great Park developer, FivePoint, and a former chamber board member, issued a battle call from the stage against the measure.

Noting the chamber was adamantly opposed to the land use proposal, Churm said, “traffic, is an issue…from Chula Vista to Humbolt…where employment is full, you have people working, people going places, consumption…traffic is just a result.

Traffic is a way of life,” Churm said.

Taming that impact, though public sector initiatives like mass transit, should be the goal, Churm insisted, “not slowing growth.”

Chamber officials also heard an opening speech from Jan Brueckner, Chancelor’s Professor of Economics at UCI, aimed entirely at the ballot initiative.

“I personally believe that voters should vote no,” Brueckner said.

Brueckner presented his research showing local land use regulations – things like maximum density rules, minimum dwelling requirements, urban growth boundaries – raise housing prices…calculating a five percent bump.

He classified Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties as moderate regulatory housing environments and said Riverside, San Diego and Santa Barbara were much tougher. The toughest housing regulations were found in Northern California, Santa Clara, Marin and Contra Costa counties, Brueckner said.

Restricting housing supplies tends to improve quality of life, Brueckner noted, because it effectively creates an amenity, keeping people out.

It cuts traffic, pollution and pressure on schools.

It also raises the willingness of people to pay.

So who wins?

Existing homeowners, who get more valuable homes and a nicer city.

Losers?

Potential homeowners and renters lose due to higher purchase prices and rents.

The real big downside, Brueckner argues is on employers who hesitate to locate to areas where they can’t attract quality workers due to housing instability.

Brueckner said voters have to be educated on the trade offs of housing regulations in order to help them “consider the greater good.”

Yet Karen Jaffee argues when it comes to community planning, the closest thing to defining the greater good is the city’s own general plan – which dictates how development will be handled in different areas.

You shouldn’t be able to go off that plan just because a developer can wrangle together enough votes on the city council dais, she argues.

“You can’t put a bunch of high density apartments and not put in the infrastructure to get around…we’re choking.”

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