Election measure over Pacifica zoning change divides voters

Voters in Pacifica are being asked to decide if the city should be able to rezone an 86-acre parcel of oceanfront land to build a controversial mixed residential and commercial development.

UPDATE - Voters rejected Measure W on Election Day, foiling plans to build 206 multi-family units.

Measure W results

Original story:

Voters in Pacifica are being asked to decide if the city should be able to rezone an 86-acre parcel of oceanfront land at the old stone quarry north of Rockaway Beach to build a controversial mixed residential and commercial development, including 206 multi-family units.

Before the owner and developer, Paul Heule, can build any apartments, the quarry must be rezoned. A 1983 ordinance prevents residential development at the quarry without voter approval. Measure W, if passed, would allow the city council, rather than voters, to rezone the quarry land for mixed residential and commercial use. City Council and other state agencies would still need to approve the actual development proposal.

A campaign sign supporting Measure W in Pacifica, California is defaced, as pictured on Oct. 31, 2016. (Jane Nevins/Peninsula Press)
A campaign sign supporting Measure W in Pacifica, California is defaced, as pictured on Oct. 31, 2016. (Jane Nevins/Peninsula Press)

The City Council added Measure W to the ballot after residents backed by the developer — who lives in Michigan — submitted the required number of signatures.

Development plans shared publicly include a hotel and amphitheater, trails, retail and office space, in addition to the 206 housing units. According to Preserve@Pacifica’s website, natural features like the Calera Creek and the wetlands will remain habitat for endangered species like the California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake.

The land in question — an old limestone quarry — looks like a series of gently sloping hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Since the quarry shut down in 1984, the community has used the land for recreation. Mori Point, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, borders the quarry to the north and has walking trails that lead visitors to the quarry’s footpaths, over grassy slopes, to ocean vistas. The quarry is a popular spot for whale watching, dog walking and mountain biking. Rockaway Beach, a local surf spot, is south of quarry.

The debate over Measure W has become an acrimonious battle between residents who say the city needs more housing and preservationists who say the land was never intended for homes. Measure W opponent and Rockaway Beach homeowner John Leonardini said residents would like Heule to build a hotel, but not apartments. “The city [residents] would applaud” for a hotel, said Leonardini, “and bend over backwards to help,” because Pacifica would benefit from hotel tax revenues.

Critics of Measure W say the proposal crowds too many homes into a small area, will increase traffic congestion and destroy the neighborhood’s tranquil setting. The Sierra Club’s local chapter opposes Measure W.

The most vocal opponents of the measure are the Stop Quarry Rezone group who fear the developer won’t make good on his promises. Voters are not approving a specific plan for the quarry and the proposal could be changed.

“The developer could just end up building the apartments and then walking away. And we wouldn’t get the stuff, the parts that we want,” said resident Peter Loeb, from Stop Quarry Rezone. “And we would get the parts that we don’t want.”

Heule’s team rejects these concerns, noting that development plans must get approval from multiple city and state agencies. John Zentner, the Preserve@Pacifica project manager, says the city and state will not allow them to only build apartments. “Going through that process is going to cost a lot of money,” said Zentner, and the development needs the hotel in order to be profitable.

The fight over Measure W has divided citizens. “Vote Yes on W” signs were defaced. “They even went as far as vandalizing my truck,” Measure W supporter Mike Mooney told the City Council Oct. 24.

Measure W opponent Leonardini said, “We’re looking at the difference between a land grab — profit grab — and a true investment in our community.”

The heart of the debate is whether adding more homes to Pacifica’s coastline is good for the city. Measure W comes at a time when communities throughout the Bay Area are struggling to keep up with surging populations that have resulted in housing shortages and heated debates over building more homes versus preserving open space.

Despite opponents’ objections to the dense housing, Zentner said multi-family units are better for an area with a housing crisis because they create more homes in less space, compared to single-family homes. More housing could help lower skyrocketing rents.

Still, others think more units won’t lower the cost of housing in Pacifica. “That would be like saying when gold was discovered in California, gold prices went down,” Leonardini said.

The campaign supporting Measure W, backed by the developer, has spent $728,077.86, according to campaign finance disclosure statements. The city clerk does not have finance disclosure statements for the opposition to Measure W because it is a grassroots group without significant financial backing. The local labor unions and teamsters also support Measure W.

The city has not taken a side. “The City’s position related to the Quarry is a neutral one” said City Manager Lorie Tinfow in an Aug. 24 press release. City staff estimated the proposed hotel would raise $1,807,000 a year through taxes on guests, doubling the current revenue. The report also estimates the apartment property tax will raise $425,000 for the city.

Voters go to the polls on Nov. 8. If Measure W passes, Heule will face new challenges. Environmental agencies, the state and the city all need to approve the plans before construction begins.

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