Late Thursday morning outside Bagels and Brew, Jim Gardner and Mary Altoff looked at each other and knew they were going to fall short in their battle with Lake Forest City Council.
The 30-day deadline to get about 4,000 signatures—representing 10 percent of the city’s registered voters—was Thursday, 6 p.m., but without a steady stream of parents dropping in to sign the Foothill Ranch Auto Centre referendum after dropping their kids at school, Gardner and Altoff knew they had struck out.
But they had a pretty good at-bat.
Gardner said Thursday night they were less than 400 signatures shy of submitting their referendum to City Hall. Had they succeeded in getting enough registered voters in the city to sign their disapproval of the Trumark Companies’ residential development in the Foothill Ranch Auto Centre, the City Council would have had to place the referendum before the voters in the general election of 2014 or a special election in 2013.
“We’re disappointed to only get nine percent when we needed 10 percent; it hurts even more to come so close and not have enough,” Gardner said. “You can’t help but second-guess yourself, ‘If we had only done this or that different.’ We missed by one percent. I’m disappointed.
“On the other hand, I’m very proud of what we achieved, to get 3,600 signatures. … That 30-day time limit is almost an impossible thing to achieve unless you have a lot of money or you do it professionally. For a grassroots group, it shows a lot of willingness and determination to work hard for something they believed in, and it was a subject people identified with; 80 percent of the people we approached were happy to sign.”
The spark that ignited the movement goes back to last year when Brookfield Homes and Trumark contributed heavily in the election for City Council. Adam Nick and Dwight Robinson won election to the council and, along with Mayor Scott Voigts—who had received donated funds even though he wasn't running for office—voted to give developers special dispensation on their projects when compared to other developers.
When the developers' projects were officially given the green light by the council over the summer, Gardner—a city council candidate in 2012—and others tried to take the decision away from the council and put the projects on the ballot through a referendum. The council's decisions included rezoning the Foothill Ranch Auto Centre from commercial to residential.
Gardner's grassroots group, which called itself Save Lake Forest, initially took on the Brookfield Homes project in the Foothill Ranch Auto Centre, but that deadline passed two weeks ago after Save Lake Forest acquired about 2,400 signatures.
The learning process was tough, Gardner said: "We made so many mistakes."
Still, Gardner said about a dozen volunteers—there were as many as 40 at one point—had reached the point where it could gather 1,000 signatures in a week.
Ultimately, the 30-day deadline was their undoing. The clock began after the city council voted 3-2 to approve the Trumark development on the site currently occupied by Elite Automotive; the location had previously been home to an auto dealership.
Gardner said it took about an hour to get 10 signatures provided there was access to potential voters.
"We had 40 people out there," he said. "If they get 10 more signatures apiece, it would have been a different ballgame. That’s how close we came."