A coalition of builders, Realtors, and farm groups soundly defeated an attempt by an unusual pairing of environmentalists and local trade unions to protect 700,000 acres of unincorporated rural land in eastern and northern San Diego County.

The measure, known as the Rural Lands Initiative, or Proposition A, was rejected by 64 percent of the county's voters during California's primary election March 2.

Proposition A would have established minimum lot sizes of 40, 80, and 160 acres and placed a 20-year ban on development of the unincorporated or so-called “backcountry” lands. It also would have required new subdivisions to be approved by a majority vote in future elections.

Both sides combined spent in excess of $2 million to deliver their messages to the public. The campaign was very divisive. Proponents sought to protect rural areas from sprawl and pushed for more urban infill projects, fearing that San Diego would go the way of Los Angeles.

On the other side, the measure's opponents said Proposition A would drive land prices up, increasing housing prices yet another round. They also said it would derail the county's ongoing General Plan 2020, which seeks to accommodate development adjacent to existing infrastructure, as well as protect “backcountry” lands. Farm groups were concerned that most farmers couldn't afford to buy 40-acre lots, and farmers who had lots in excess of 160 acres would see their properties devalued if the lots were downzoned.

“The average price of a detached home in San Diego County is $450,000 and changes by the month,” says Cheri Pogeler, market analyst for Shea Homes San Diego, which expects to close around 800 homes in the county in 2004.

“By limiting the land we could build on, Proposition A would have raised the cost of housing ... and housing prices at a time when they are already high enough in California,” says Pogeler.

One of the more interesting aspects of the proposition campaign is that the environmentalists forged an alliance with the San Diego–Imperial Counties Labor Council. Typically, organized labor sides with builders on anti-growth measures, claiming that smart-growth plans cost union members jobs.

But Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary/treasurer of the San Diego labor council, says real job growth in the future will be with urban infill projects, citing plans on the books in the city of San Diego to build 56,000 condos.

“We're going to have to infill,” says Butkiewicz, who points out that the San Diego City Council supported Proposition A. “It's the only way to have [affordable] housing for the employees of our companies ... and meet the high demand for housing.”

And Duncan McFetridge, a rural resident and cabinetmaker who headed up the fight for the proposition, adds that the impact fees in California are staggering, often exceeding $100,000.

“Sprawl politics have been in the saddle for 30 years and that's the key,” he says. “We haven't done anything with a plan ... it's just a free-for-all.”

In the end, when the voters stared Proposition A in the face, the concept of actually being responsible for planning issues may have scared them off.

“When people come to grips with the reality that they will be voting on dozens, if not hundreds of land use documents, they don't feel they are the ones best qualified to make those decisions,” says Clayton Traylor, NAHB's senior staff vice president for state and local issues, who adds that a similar initiative is brewing in Florida for a vote in November's election.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA.