Democracy, Managed Growth & You: Taking Responsibility for Grass Valley’s Future | TheUnion.com
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Democracy, Managed Growth & You: Taking Responsibility for Grass Valley’s Future

Note: This will appear in print at a later date.

The citizens’ “Managed Growth Initiative” requires the City to follow its General Plan’s vision of how Grass Valley should grow. The Initiative and its proposals reflect a deeply democratic process. Abraham Lincoln eloquently propounded the democratic ideal at stake here: We are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Correspondingly, California’s Constitution forthrightly declares: “All political power is inherent in the people.” [1] And: “The people have the right to instruct their representatives.”[2]

Requiring voter approval for changes to fundamental, constitutional guidance is common: amendments to both California’s Constitution and Grass Valley’s Charter must be approved by the electorate.[3] Significantly, California courts consider a general plan a community’s “constitution for future development,”[4] thereby specifying the relationship between a plan and zoning ordinances to implement it.



Similarly, the “Managed Growth Initiative” incorporates the current General Plan’s core – the Land Use Element and Map – into law, and requires the City’s zoning to be consistent with it. This is normal for un-chartered towns.[5] Further, amendments to that core (just six over the last nine years[6]) must be approved by Grass Valley’s voters.

Council-members find this awkward. At a May 27 presentation of the Initiative to the City, Councilman Miller opined: “The reason we have representative government, …is because the people elect representatives who share the same values and visions that they do, and so that’s why we sit up here, that’s why people place trust in us[7] – so you’re, basically, in this arena of City government, you want to make it a pure democracy, and you want it – rather – eliminate the representative government portion of it.”[8]




On the contrary, the American experiment relies on both representative and direct democracy to guide it. For example, in 1911, Republican Progressives introduced a swath of Constitutional Amendments consolidating popular sovereignty in reaction to the Railroads’ powerful and corrosive stranglehold on California’s representative democracy. Results included procedures of initiative, referendum and recall, permitting citizens to, among other things, directly propose and challenge legislative actions.[9] This provides an enduring corrective to concentrations of power, profits, and patronage that would corrupt Lincoln’s democratic ideal.

Why the “Managed Growth Initiative”? The proponents’ attorney replied to the city council, explaining: “An interesting aspect of [unchecked] representative government [permits] a handful of those who have the vast economic resources or political power, [to] influence those who are sitting in the positions where you are…. California expressly reserves the right of the voters to correct those types of abuses of power. That is what this initiative makes sure will happen with regard to the future of this city, that…changes to its general plan reflect the values of the people, not…of five people.”[10]

Importantly, Grass Valley’s Charter recognizes that: “The legislative power of the City of Grass Valley shall be vested in the people through the initiative and referendum and the council.”[11] In keeping with California’s Constitutional requirement, the City’s Charter explicitly states: “There are hereby reserved to the electors of the city the powers of the initiative and referendum and of the recall of municipal elective officers.”[12]

Although citizens can express their displeasure with elected officials by voting them out, four years can be a long wait. Furthermore, while recall is a valuable corrective, it demands huge energy and is very disruptive. Far simpler and more efficient is to craft clear rules that direct elected officials toward the community’s publicly established goals. Fundamental rules intended to express a community’s central values and aspirations are too important to be left to officials’ sole discretion or to their “flexible”[13] interpretation.

Yet, for several years the City has flirted with, even encouraged,[14] huge residential projects in the Special Development Areas that vastly exceed the growth anticipated by the General Plan.[15] Also, the City has consistently resisted wide-spread evidence – from public meetings[16] and polls[17] – showing that its citizens do not want rapid growth and big projects. Perversely, it ignores its -own study’s conclusion that the General Plan’s planned growth is more fiscally sound and sustainable than big developers’ proposals.[18] Self-interestedly, it opposes any attempt – even the Mayor’s developer-supported initiative[19] – to constrain its unfettered discretion to change or reinterpret the General Plan.

Clearly, representative stewardship in Grass Valley needs citizen oversight.[20]

The “Managed Growth Initiative” is simple and transparent. By incorporating the General Plan’s core into law, the City becomes legally bound to follow it. While the City will still develop and propose amendments, a generation of ballot-box scrutiny ensures that Grass Valley’s land-use governance really is of, by, and for the people: its citizens.

Howie Muir

Western Nevada County

[1] Constitution of California, Article 2, Section 1. On-line version at: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/const-toc.html.

[2] Constitution of California, Article 1, Section 3(a).

[3] Constitution of California, Article 18, Section 4; Charter of Grass Valley, Article XIV, Section 9, available at: http://www.cityofgrassvalley.com/services/resources/municodes/Title_99/01/index.html.

[4] Lesher Communication, Inc. v. City of Walnut Creek (1990) & DeVita v. County of Napa (1995). This status is also acknowledged in the General Plan: City of Grass Valley 2020 General Plan (1999), p.1-1.

[5] California Government Code Section 65860(a). Also, see ‘League of California Cities’ comparison at: http://www.cacities.org/resource_files/25436.General%20Law%20-%20Charter%20City%20Comparison.doc.

[6] The Community Development Department maintains no formal list, but records appear to indicate just six changes required in the Land Use Element since 1999: Nevada Joint Union High School [bus transportation facilities] (2003), Morgan Ranch West (2004), Briar Patch (2005), Rectification of ‘General Plan and Zoning Map Inconsistencies’ (2005), DeMartini RV Sales (2006), Wolf Creek Village (2007).

[7] Councilman Chauncey Poston echoed the theme of elected representatives’ authority as recently as August 12: “The citizens of Grass Valley elected us to make decisions”, The Union, August 13, https://www.theunion.com/article/20080813/NEWS/711344740. The Union’s publisher thinks likewise: ‘The five people who sit on the Grass Valley City Council are elected to make decisions.’ (Apr. 22, at: https://www.theunion.com/article/20080422/OPINION/29005777). Even the City administration echoes this: ‘There is little concern with why the City is changing or why it cannot perform or provide services felt to be needed. The Citizens have placed their trust in their local government institution and expect the highest level of service from them with the least impact on their pocket book.’ – City of Grass Valley 2007-2008 Budget introduction, pp.1-2 of 4.

[8] At the May 27, 2008, City Council Meeting.

[9] Center for Governmental Studies. “Democracy by Initiative: Shaping California’s Fourth Branch of Government.” 2nd Edition (2008). Pp.35-42. Available at: https://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/215.

[10] At the May 27, 2008, City Council Meeting.

[11] Charter of Grass Valley, Article V, Section 1.

[12] Charter of Grass Valley, Article XI, Section 4.

[13] Examples. The Planning staff’s Report on Potential Issues and Impacts of Proposed Land Use Initiative, to City Council, May 13: pp.4, 5 (“there is a need for the City to retain a certain level of flexibility and creativity”). Councilman Chauncey Poston, on the subject of the ‘Managed Growth Initiative’, May 27, City Council Meeting: ‘I’d sure like to have the ability to move some things around’ and ‘I say, let’s work on an initiative that works on the general plan numbers, the original general plan, but gives us the mobility to move some things around’.

[14] At the ‘Crestview Workshop’ (July 21, 2005), then Mayor Tassone publicly acknowledged that the City had invited the developers to offer projects that exceeded the General Plan’s limits.

[15] E.g., the City voted to exceed the General Plan’s limits by up to 1,263 residential units with Resolution #06-60 (Aug. 22, 2006).

[16] ‘Crestview Workshop’ (July 21, 2005), with c.150 citizens: City non-responsive to opposition and concerns about excess development. ‘SDA Workshop’ (Aug. 7, 2006), with c.140 citizens where many citizens signalled their desire to follow the General Plan; for example, see The Union, Aug. 8, 2006 (https://www.theunion.com/article/20060808/NEWS/108080118), which reported: ‘But at several points, participants questioned the need for the city to grow at all, and whether the houses that would be built would serve people from out of the area.’

[17] City of Grass Valley 2006 Community Survey, conducted Feb.-Mar. 2006, surveying 338 citizens, 47% of whom rated as ‘too much growth and development’ as an ‘extremely’ or ‘very serious’ problem, while only 19% felt ‘too little growth and development’ was a major concern [p.3]. This difference widened further when respondents were asked to volunteer what they thought was the most serious problem facing Grass Valley: 20% indicated ‘growth and development [was] too fast/too much’; only 3% opined that “growth and development [was] too little/too slow’ [p.8], available at: https://www.theunion.com/assets/pdf/TU569244.PDF. See also The Union, Apr. 6, 2006: https://www.theunion.com/article/20060406/OPINION/104060131

[18] Economic and Fiscal Conditions Study for the City of Grass Valley, Appendix E, Tables E-14, E-15, E-13 & E-12, at: http://www.cityofgrassvalley.com/services/departments/cdd/pdf/SDA/PHASE3/AppendixE.pdf. Following the General Plan appeared likely to be 150 times more financially beneficial to the City than pursuing developers’ collective proposals for the SDAs at that time (gaining the City $1,489,539 more in yearly revenues than costs, compared to $9,407), and nearly three times more beneficial than even the choice made by the City Council to follow a middle way ($533,476) that still exceeded the General Plan’s limits. Moreover, the study concluded that adhering to the General Plan’s vision could be expected to yield nearly 25% more employment opportunities than the developers’ combined SDA proposals – Appendix E, Table E-10: 2,242 jobs vs. 1,803.

[19] City of Grass Valley Urban Growth Boundary, Fiscal Assurance and Residential Development Limitation Initiative, proposed by Mark Johnson (Grass Valley’s Mayor), Peggy Levine (on Grass Valley’s Historical Commission, and wife of Howard Levine, Executive Director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association), Dennis Cassella (Chair of Grass Valley’s Personnel Commission), The Union, Aug. 12: https://www.theunion.com/article/20080812/NEWS/790406194. Supported by Loma Rica developer Phil Carville, see The Union, July 17: https://www.theunion.com/article/20080717/NEWS/508047835/1061.

[20] Muir, Dickson & Press v. City of Berkeley, Alameda County Superior Court (No.2002-063165), Honorable Bonnie Sabraw, ‘Order on Petition for Writ of Mandate,’ Mar. 6, 2003, p.12: “The intent of the legislature, especially with respect to charter cities, is to allow a mostly unfettered exercise of discretion in land use decision, so long as the General Plan in place meets the mandatory requirements set forth in the Government Code.”


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