The stark, empty expanse of land just north of Ukiah was once home to one of Mendocino County's flourishing factories, the giant Masonite wood-processing plant.
But the plant disappeared, as did much of the area's timber industry, and now that land has become an unlikely battleground over the economic direction of the county.
An Ohio development company, allied with a Texas businessman, bought the 80 acres three years ago and has grown so frustrated over political resistance to its plans for a mega-center with homes, restaurant and big-box stores like Costco that it is taking the development directly to voters.
The Nov. 3 election has galvanized the county's board of supervisors, councils in most of its cities and local businesses and supporters who fear the 80-acre shopping center would turn Ukiah into an economic ghost town and undermine decision making by elected officials.
In effect, the vote could be a plebiscite over local planning control that has placed a premium on protecting the county's rural character and a developer promising closeby shopping and more tax revenues and jobs in a county hit hard by the economic slump.
The developers' attempt to sidestep local planning and zoning regulations is part of a growing nationwide trend. But the Mendocino County measure is rare in its scope and circumstances.
"It's very unusual. It's more likely to happen after a government defeat or approval," said Steven Glazer, a Bay Area political consultant who has worked on several development issues that went to the ballot, including the Black Point housing and golf development in Novato in 1998 and the Lowe's Home improvement store in Cotati, which was unsuccessfully challenged by anti-growth residents through a ballot initiative in 2004. Unlike the proposed Mendocino County development, both had been approved by their respective city councils.
The campaign over Measure A is dominating politics in Mendocino County.
Opposing views abound in glossy flyers, public debates and radio broadcasts. "No on A" signs are everywhere in Ukiah, where local businesses and their supporters say the project located just north of the Ukiah city limits would bring devastating competition from big, international companies.
A yes vote on Measure A would allow Ohio-based Developers Diversified Realty and its Texas partner, David Berndt, to build up to 800,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and homes on land currently zoned for industrial use, all without county review or approval.
Opponents say the measure would usurp local control of land use by exempting it from county planning and environmental review processes, which allow for public input.
"The passage of Measure A would eliminate the public's ability to plan their own community," said Richard Shoemaker, a former Ukiah city councilman, former county supervisor and a spokesman for the No on A campaign.
Proponents say the opposite is true.
"What can be more democratic than bringing it to a vote of the people," said Robin Collier, a former Ukiah business owner and proponent of Measure A.
Developers Diversified's plan never came to a vote of the board of supervisors before the project's proponents sought a voter referendum. But the developers and its supporters say they had no choice but to go directly to voters.
The proposal was stalled by the county's ongoing failure to adopt a Ukiah Valley Area Plan, said Jeff Adams, the project manager for the project, called "Mendocino Crossings." County officials had said they were unlikely to grant final approval to a project until the county's General Plan was completed, he said.