Despite being outspent 12-to-1, a grassroots group campaigning against a plan to build a massive big-box complex in Mendocino County, California, won a decisive victory when voters rejected the project by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Developers Diversified Realty (DDR), an Ohio-headquartered firm that owns 700 shopping centers and ranks as one of the largest big-box developers in the country, spent an estimated $1.2 million trying to persuade the county’s 24,000 voters to green-light an 80-acre mixed-used project slated to include up to 800,000 square feet of big-box stores just north of the town of Ukiah. DDR broke the county’s previous record for spending on a ballot initiative.
Had it been approved, the measure would have rezoned the property from industrial to mixed use and given DDR free reign to develop the land without oversight from local officials. It would have also exempted the project from California’s Environmental Quality Act, which mandates that a development’s impacts on such factors as traffic, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as its potential to cause vacancies and urban decay in downtowns, be evaluated and mitigated.
Opponents of the project, organized as Save Our Local Economy (SOLE), raised just $92,000, but ran a smart, creative campaign that, over the course of several months, involved more than 400 volunteers.
“This was truly an issue that united our county,” said Cliff Paulin of SOLE. “The general consensus was that we were not going to let our local self-determination be sacrificed to the whims of an out-of-state corporation. While DDR was the exclusive source of funds for the Yes campaign, our donations came from over 500 local individuals and businesses.” The project first surfaced about four years ago, according Richard Shoemaker, another leader of SOLE. Fearing tough scrutiny of their shopping center proposal from the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors – two supervisors elected last year had taken a position against the project in their campaigns -DDR launched a petition drive in January to put its proposal before voters.
Betting that a blitz of advertising would win the day, DDR flooded every mailbox in the county with 20 separate mailers and bought extensive television and radio time. They argued that the project would create 700 new jobs, generate $1.7 million in new tax revenue, stop retail spending from leaking to Santa Rosa, and be good for the environment by cleaning up an old industrial site.
SOLE countered each of those arguments in its outreach to voters. The group pointed out that the development would not in fact create a net gain in retail jobs and tax revenue, but only cannibalize sales from existing businesses. Moreover, the group noted, DDR had taken over the region’s best industrial site, but refused to explore industrial uses and was instead bent on a project that would provide only low-wage chain store jobs.
SOLE also emphasized that a “yes” vote would give an out-of-state developer special privileges unavailable to local businesses and would provide no recourse to residents saddled with traffic and environmental impacts.
“Local businesses were very visible on this campaign,” noted Shoemaker. “Business owners almost never stick their heads up on an issue. But this time they did. At least one-third of the businesses downtown had ‘No on A’ signs in their windows.”
SOLE enlisted scores of volunteers to conduct an extensive voter identification drive that identified thousands of people opposed to the development and ensured that they turned out to vote.
“We know our county and what works here and these guys don’t. They have a big bag of money, but no local smarts,” said Shoemaker.
SOLE also launched a conversation about alternative uses for site. A number of developers offered their ideas and consensus formed around an eco-industrial park that would house companies involved in green energy technologies and green building products.
Whether that idea will have a chance depends on what DDR decides to do next. The Ukiah Daily Journal urged DDR to move quickly to either sell the property or come up with a plan that fits the community’s priorities for the site.