With bulldozers on the horizon, 8,500 protesters marched up Laguna Canyon Road in 1989 to preserve the undeveloped landscape leading into Laguna Beach. A similar effort to preserve open space by an initiative known as Measure CC on next Tuesday’s general election ballot has been, in contrast, a slow-burner.
That’s not to say there isn’t heat under foot.
With state and federal funding for open space exhausted, proponents say Measure CC, which would levy an annual $120 tax on each parcel in Laguna, is a locally funded way to continue what began 23 years ago: buying and preserving what remains of large, undeveloped tracts scattered throughout town and near adjacent open space. They say the measure (www.lagunaopenspace.com), which would raise an estimated $20 million over 20 years, provides an alternative revenue source giving city officials the capacity to act when land becomes available. The initiative must pass by a two-thirds majority of voters.
Earlier last month, opponents, led by the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Association, jumped into the fray with an oversize mailer attacking the measure. It argues that the measure would create a citizens’ oversight committee with unchecked say on how the money raised by the parcel tax, estimated at $1 million annually, is spent. They also argue that open space should be acquired in uninhabited areas, not in neighborhoods.
The measure states tax money will be used solely to purchase undeveloped residential parcels ranging in size from two to 80 acres from willing sellers. Its proponents, preservationist groups such as Village Laguna and Laguna Greenbelt, say the timing is right to add to open space. When cyclical land values peak again, especially in a seaside town, lots once considered unbuildable could attract new speculation. Opponents counter that the economic recession makes an additional tax an undue burden, especially among the town’s considerable elderly population.
“For 20 years at $120 a year, that’s just too much for me to afford,” said homeowner Sandi Werthe, a widow living on a fixed income. “Property taxes and all expenses go up every year and social security doesn’t go up with it. It would be an additional strain on an already strained income.”
Other residents look to the hills and have seen the slow disappearance of untouched land. “This is a legacy for my children and grandchildren,” said Charlotte Masarik, an avid hiker whose home is Measure CC headquarters. “It upsets me because I’m in the back country all the time and I’ve watched over the last 30 years how the vistas have changed because what we thought were unbuildable lots got built on. Unspoiled hillsides have now got mega-mansions on some of them.”
Howard Hills, a spokesman for the taxpayers’ association, said that’s a misplaced sentiment. “Measure CC is not what our open space legacy is all about,” he claimed. “The sponsors of Measure CC should have just dedicated the revenue to the city’s existing open-space budget for the elected City Council to manage. They should be spending their resources on the existing legacy and working with open space in uninhabited, not residential, areas.”
City Manager John Pietig said that’s possible and, in fact, has been done. The city’s current $190,000 open space fund was supplied by property taxes. The council could continue that, Pietig said, “but it would be at the expense of some other service.”
There is no dedicated revenue stream for future funding, he added, and government funding to purchase “nonessentials” like open space is nearly history. State grants from Prop. 12 will run out next year.
Michael Gosselin, a local realtor supporting the measure, isn’t worried about the measure’s potential impact on city revenue, should private land be purchased for public open space and be removed from property tax rolls. “The lion’s share of the parcels unbuildable today will always be unbuildable,” he said, “because the city is not going to loosen the requirements in terms of steepness or access for fire safety.”
Opponents’ primarily object to a provision in Measure CC that establishes a citizens’ committee to oversee open space parcel acquisitions proposed to the City Council. The measure, according to Hills, creates an unbridled “unelected bureaucratic body with a tax dollar slush fund to be doled out by political appointees.” He attributes the committee’s scope to a “shrewdly and cleverly” written description of the committee’s responsibilities.
“It’s about the $1 to $1.5 million budget that will be the only budget in the city government exempt from the ups and downs inherent to the fiscal health of the community,” Hills said. “What other office in City Hall is going to have a guaranteed budget for 20 years that can’t be reduced?”
Paul Freeman, spokesman for Measure CC, called Hills’s approach a fear tactic. “They’re making stuff up,” Freeman said. “They know if they say scary things, it will resonate with people who may be generally skeptical about government.”
Freeman, a former Laguna council member, contends the committee has no power other than persuasion and no budget for buying property. “The City Council and only the City Council has access to the funds under Measure CC,” he said. “The City Council and only the City Council makes decisions concerning the expenditures of funds under Measure CC. The committee has no power under Measure CC except the right to review proposed expenditures. They get to say, ‘Hey, we object’ before and not after the fact and the council has to respond. The council can do what they legally want.”
Gosselin says the committee’s presence assures him that unbuildable property will be purchased for open space “in perpetuity” and not to enrich the value of adjacent developed property.
“I’m very comfortable with the fact that there’s an oversight committee written into the measure and then the City Council has to vote on whether or not to do it,” he said. “With those two backstops, I think it’s a good idea to continue the legacy of preserving open space.”
The argument against the tax may be influencing opinion, but only because it’s representing false information, Freeman said. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions like, ‘Why would we want to be taxed to buy some teeny little parcel?” like the one they pictured on their negative mailer.”
Hills admitted the photographs aren’t of proposed or available lots. “Those are lots that we determined in our best judgment to be in the category of lots that could be subject to purchase,” he said.
“That kind of parcel in no way, shape or form could possibly be eligible for acquisition under this measure and they know that,” refuted Freeman. “There’s no parcel on our map that’s less than two acres, the average is 20 acres, the largest is 80 acres,” he said of land identified as potential purchases.
Freeman concedes next week’s vote lacks the drama of circumstances 20 years ago, when development in Laguna Canyon was imminent. Even so, a poll showed that the sentiment that spawned a protest and approval of a 20-year bond measure in 1990 still exists. “It’s whether you buy into the notion that open space is valuable,” Freeman said.