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.
The plan also asks that at least 20 percent of future housing be affordable for modest-income families. And it requires developers to provide funds for additional police officers to at least maintain the current officer-to-resident ratio.
San Diego County grew by 90,000 per year during the 1980s. Smog and ozone levels are the second worst in the country behind Los Angeles. Regional sewers have overflowed into rivers, bays, and the Pacific Ocean 2,000 times in 10 years. Jail overcrowding is the nation's worst. Drought-era water is more scarce than ever.
Polls show 75 percent of San Diegans want some form of growth management. Even so, critics in the construction industry say the PLAN measure may reach too far too fast.
"What they've done is push all the right emotional buttons and said, 'Let's go fix the world,' " says Frank Panarisi, president of the Construction Industry Federation. "You can't put all the solutions on the back of one industry and at the same time ask us for affordable housing."
Part of the reason big California cities have had trouble coping with growth is lack of revenue dating back to the Proposition 13 property-tax revolt of 1978.
"Cities eventually had to pass bond measures or new sales taxes to fund the new facilities demanded by new growth," says Peter Navarro, a regional planning professor at the University of California at Irvine, who heads PLAN. The new measure "is a way of ensuring that new development won't be a burden on existing populations."
"The standards they are asking developers to meet are very difficult," adds Mr. Landis. He says the state must address the issue of budgetary reform before cities can deal with new growth.
PLAN faces a tough battle. To qualify the initiative for the June 1992 ballot, supporters must gather 56,585 signatures over the next six months - 10 percent of San Diego's registered voters. Then it must face the influential $8 billion-per-year construction industry.
When a similar measure looked assured of passage two years ago, both the mayor and the City Council formally adopted its goals. Fourteen months later, no new legislation has materialized. Mr. Navarro blames pressure from developers for the stall.
"San Diego has become so big that the only way to get yourself elected is to get big money behind you," he says, lamenting several defeats due to "misinformation campaigns" financed by developers. Landis confirms the construction industry typically outspends citizen campaigns 15 to 1.
The San Diego Chamber of Commerce fought against the previous PLAN proposal and is expected to come out against the new one as well. "When you put up hurdles to development, you send a negative ripple effect through the economy," says Andrea Korogi, vice president of the local government division.
"We're already in recession," says Larry Clemens, first vice president of the Building Industry Association. "Now we're adding so many rigid requirements that businesses want to get out of California altogether."
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.