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THE GROUND RULES: Brace yourself for the biggest growth battle the state has ever seen.

Earlier this week, the coalition organization Citizens for Growth Management turned in more than 160,000 signatures to put the Citizens Growth Management Initiative on the November ballot. Barring a successful legal challenge--and the group only needed 101,762 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot--Arizona voters will have a chance to seriously change the ground rules in Arizona.

If the initiative passes, the party is over for the developers who have long called the shots in this state. Builders will be required to pay steep impact fees to cover the real costs of expanding schools, roads, and water and sewer systems to handle new residents. Communities will be forced to develop voter-approved management plans for handling future growth that would include urban growth boundaries, beyond which development would be strictly restricted. Major amendments to the plans would have to be approved by voters.

In short, the initiative ends taxpayer subsidies and puts the future of Arizona communities in the hands of voters rather than politicians.

The initiative's biggest backer is the Sierra Club, but it has the support of 38 other environmental and public-interest organizations across the state.

The Growth Lobby knows that polls show voters overwhelmingly support restraining Arizona's runaway growth. Last year in Pima County, a record 7,241 new home permits were issued; industry experts expect another 7,000 to be issued this year.

To distract voters, the Arizona Legislature passed Growing Smarter Plus, a growth-management plan drawn up behind closed doors in Gov. Jane Dee Hull's office. Besides taking a few baby steps toward managing growth, Growing Smarter Plus also sends a proposal to the ballot to set aside about 3 percent of state trust lands for preservation, in the hope that voters will choose that alternative over the Citizens Growth Management Initiative.

Guess what? The cacti crowd remains unimpressed with the legislature's efforts, complaining that the new regs have no teeth--and in some ways, actually make it harder to control growth.

The Growth Lobby, for its part, says the Citizens Growth Management Initiative is extreme, radical, dangerous, irresponsible and possibly carcinogenic. Opponents of the initiative are hoping to raise more than $3 million to defeat the proposal and pass the legislative alternative.

The initiative was a strong undercurrent earlier this month at the Arizona Economic Forum, a gathering of various business and political bigshots in Flagstaff. Although most speakers didn't directly address the initiative, consultant Elliot Pollack warned that its passage could result in years of litigation during which no construction could take place.

For the growth Titanic, Pollack told the crowd, "This is the iceberg."

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