REGION — In a 3-2 tally, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted on Nov. 19 in favor of amended language for a contested ballot measure centering around a long-contested North County housing project. Unless successfully legally challenged, the new language will now be voted on by the county’s electorate on March 3.
The project, Newland Sierra, was originally approved by the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 26, 2018, in a 4-0 vote. Just weeks after that vote, though, opponents of the project gathered the legally required number of signatures they needed to put a referendum item in opposition to the project on the ballot.
But the language of that ballot measure came under question by its opponents, namely Newland Sierra, in the aftermath of polling work done by the developer. In response to the findings, the company’s legal team wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors on July 31 requesting a language change under threat of legal action.
The Board of Supervisors would a week later hold a closed session meeting and vote on the amended language options on Aug. 6 in response to that letter. The agenda for that day’s meeting lists the agenda item as “Conference with Legal Counsel — Anticipated Litigation,” with no other details offered.
To those present at the Nov. 19 meeting, the ballot measure seemingly came at the proverbial 11th hour. One attorney present on behalf of proponents of the initial ballot measure language even called the arrival of the language change “weird” during the public comments portion of the meeting.
But Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, a Republican who represents large sections of coastal and inland North County, said that this was not her intention. Rather, she described it as a function of the rules surrounding closed session meetings.
“If you try to follow the process, it lacks transparency,” said Gaspar, who has received $1,100 in campaign contributions from individuals associated with Newland since her first run for the office during the 2016 campaign cycle. “I was under the assumption at the time that our closed session gatherings are reportable and it turns out they’re not.”
Gaspar then made a motion to lift the gag on discussing that meeting and the original letter, which the board approved of in a 5-0 count.
Discussion then ensued about the letter, written by San Francisco-based attorney Jim Sutton on behalf of Newland Sierra, which argued that the initial language on the ballot measure was too vague and potentially illegal.
It “does not meet the statutory requirement to describe the ‘nature’ of the referendum, does not provide voters with sufficient information to make an informed decision about the referendum, and favors the proponents of the referendum,” Sutton wrote in the letter.
At its first closed-session meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted down the proposal to bring a ballot measure language change to a public meeting for a public discussion and then a vote. Yet subsequently, Supervisor Greg Cox switched sides on the matter by voting alongside Gaspar and Supervisor Jim Desmond — the latter whose district includes North County cities Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos — at an October closed session meeting.
“I haven’t talked to the developer, I haven’t talked to their attorneys,” said Cox of his switched vote tabulation. “But upon further reflection, I was thinking more and more on the fact, when we put something on the ballot, we out to make something as concise and straightforward and clear in regards to what people are voting on.”
Christopher Garrett, an attorney for the firm Latham & Watkins representing opponents of Newland Sierra for the ballot measure fight, said he found out about these closed-session proceedings and votes just like how everyone else following the situation did.
“We didn’t know about the developer letter or the secret meetings held by the board, or the conversations between the developer and the county lawyers that led to the developer’s lawyers’ letter,” Garrett said.
The new ballot measure begins with a question reading, “Shall the San Diego County General Plan Amendment PDS2015-GPA-15-001 approved by the Board of Supervisors for the development of the Newland Sierra Project, be approved?”
It is the explanation of what the project is, however, which has riled up project opponents.
“The existing General Plan allows 99 homes and up to 2,000,000 square feet of commercial with open space,” that contested language continues. “General Plan Amendment PDS2015-GPA-15-001 would authorize up to 2,199 homes and 1,777,684 square feet of commercial. The approved Newland Sierra Project includes a planned community of 2,135 homes, a school site, 81,000 square feet of retail, 36 acres of parks and 1,209 acres of open space.”
Initially, the ballot language was written in bureaucratic language.
“Shall the San Diego County General Plan Amendment PDS2015-GPA-15-0l, which amends the General Plan Land Use Element Map, Mobility Element, North County Metropolitan Subregional Plan, Bonsall Land Use Map and the I-15 Corridor Subregional Plan in conjunction with the Newland Sierra Project, be approved?” it had read.
Desmond, who has received $2,100 in campaign contributions from Newland officials since his first run for the office during the 2018 campaign cycle, said he supports the changes.
“This is reasonable ballot language that explains what the heck it is you’re voting on,” he said. “That’s really what we’re trying to get at. And I don’t think it’s bias and I don’t think it tips the scales.”
Under state law, ballot measure language must describe the “nature” of the issue being voted on.
“The basic function of the ballot question is to provide voters with information about
what they are being asked to vote on,” Sutton wrote in the letter. “Even experienced planning professionals would have no idea how exactly these amendments to County law change what may be built on the Newland Sierra project site.”
But Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, said he believes the current language is now biased in favor of Newland Sierra. He came to that conclusion after questioning the Board of Supervisors legal counsel, Thomas Montgomery, on whether he had asked both sides for input on the ballot language.
Montgomery said he had only consulted with Newland Sierra on the matter.
“One side went through the exercise of doing polling and focus groups to find out what their preferred language would be,” said Fletcher. “And here today as a board, we are taking virtually verbatim the language one side proposed as most favorable to them and putting that on the ballot in the attempt to say we are merely just trying to inform the voters.”
Supervisor Dianne Jacob, the other “no” vote alongside Fletcher, called the changing of the language “unprecedented” and said that she has “never seen anything like this before” in her 27 years sitting on the Board of Supervisors.
In the aftermath of the vote, Newland Sierra lauded the wording alteration, saying it was “appreciative the Board of Supervisors agreed to consider this matter to ensure voters have the information necessary to make an informed choice.”
“We are gratified the Board of Supervisors voted to protect the right of voters to an unbiased, factual ballot question that conforms with state law,” said Newland Sierra spokeswoman Devonna Almagro. “We are confident that when voters understand the choice they are making in March, they will vote in favor of the Better Choice Measure.”
Opponents of the ballot measure, though, did not express such gratification.
“The Board of Supervisors has once again chosen shady developers over the will of the public,” said Rick Schloss, a spokesman for the opponents of Newland Sierra. “No amount of word-smithing can hide what Newland Sierra truly is — a sprawl development in a high fire risk area with no affordable housing that will add almost 29,000 cars to the freeway every day. We are confident the public will see through this sham and vote No on Newland Sierra.”
Garrett, the attorney representing opponents of the ballot measure, said the firm is still exploring its legal options.
“It is obviously unfair to us, but it may be that the Newland project is so bad that it doesn’t matter what the language is, the voters will say no and it’s not worth it to challenge this language in a lawsuit to challenge this language since there’s so many bad things about the project,” said Garrett. “So, we’re still trying to figure it out.”
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.