San Diego's PLAN to Stem Growth Small Grass-Roots Group Pushes California's Broadest-Ever Anti-Development Measure. 'LOS ANGELIZATION' Series: WINDOWS ON AMERICA. Part 39 of a Series

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FROM a small pod of offices above an electronics store here, a citizen's war is being waged against the nation's fastest-growing suburbia.

A staff of five opens mail with checks of $3, $7, $15. They stack signed petitions. On weekends, up to 500 volunteers man tables at malls and local festivals.

"I don't want to sit in traffic like I did in L.A. and make my kids wear smog masks," says Randy Kokal, member of the grass-roots organization PLAN - Prevent Los Angelization Now.

After an unsuccessful attempt last year to bring the growth issue before San Diego voters, PLAN now is close to getting the broadest development-regulation initiative ever proposed in California onto the city's ballot.

"It's not a pretty way to do business," says Mike Gotch, state assemblyman for San Diego's 78th District, who has seen several such measures defeated by powerful development lobbies. "But we have a long history in this state of having to pass citizen-led measures because elected legislators have failed to act."

Despite the introduction of 211 so-called "no-growth" or "slow growth" initiatives since 1971, California has barely begun to cope with the influx of roughly 600,000 new residents each year during the 1980s. Though over 60 percent of such measures have passed, most were in communities of less than 100,000. San Diego County grew by nearly that much each year last decade.

The proposed PLAN measure is culled from the most workable ideas in 200 growth-control plans nationwide. Its authors borrowed the so-called "concurrency" doctrine from Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act, which requires public facilities to be available at time of need, not years after developments are occupied. They looked at water conservation agreements in Arizona. They examined green-space protection clauses in Vermont and New Hampshire.

"The plan is a model for any city in the country concerned with balancing the needs of new citizens with protecting rights of the old," says Richard Carson, an economist at the University of California at San Diego.

"Growth is the hot topic all over America," says Amy Van Doren, research associate at the American Planning Association, a Chicago-based, city-planning reference service. In recent years Maine, Vermont, Georgia, Florida, Oregon, and Washington have passed laws mandating comprehensive city planning.

"Planners tend to look to California for successes and failures because it is on the cutting edge of growth," she says.

The PLAN measure seeks to ensure that developers pay a fair share of not only present but long-term costs incurred by their developments: police, traffic controls, water, schools, sewers.

"It's a step beyond simple growth caps which try to limit development to so many units per year," says John Landis, author of a new study on state growth initiatives at the University of California at Berkeley. "This is far more restrictive.... It hits all the bases from water to traffic levels."

The PLAN initiative would require developers to fund the parks, libraries, and other city facilities needed because of the population growth generated by their projects. To prevent new development from worsening the city's water shortage, the measure would also compel developers to retrofit existing homes with water-saving devices to offset the water demands of new homes. …