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Once heralded as a vital check on corporate influence over government, California’s ballot initiative system — which allows residents to propose laws and approve them by popular vote — has been used to sharply cut property taxes and to enact the country’s first medical marijuana law.
But these days, developers are using the process for another purpose: to sidestep state environmental laws and speed up major developments.
Plans for a stadium in Carson, a shopping center north of San Diego and a massive warehouse complex in Moreno Valley were approved last year using the ballot initiative process. Another ballot measure petition hastened construction of a stadium in Inglewood, where the N.F.L.’s Los Angeles Rams will play.
The advantage for developers is clear: Projects approved by ballot measures avoid legal challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act.
There is a twist, though: Residents often do not even get a chance to vote.
Once 15 percent of eligible voters have signed a petition, a project qualifies for the ballot, and local elected officials can either call a special election or accept the proposal without negotiating changes. Officials often approve the project to avoid paying for a special election that could further strain tight budgets.
Supporters of the ballot measures say they allow residents to override a broken system in which lawsuits and environmental reviews can delay projects for years.
But environmentalists argue that the arrangement grants special privileges to developers, even if only a relatively small fraction of residents support a project. And land-use experts say the strategy will become more common unless the state government steps in to curtail it.
So far, the issue has failed to attract much attention in Sacramento.
“We’ve ended up with a warping of direct democracy to defeat strong environmental laws,” said Douglas Carstens, a lawyer specializing in land use and the environment. “It’s ramping up. Within a year or two, people will realize what a bad situation this is.”