Slow-Burning Debate on Open Space Heats Up

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.

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  1. Howard Hills

    Article: “Slow-Burning Debate on Open Space Heats Up”

    Date: November 2, 2012

    Indy writer Rita Robinson produced a more balanced article than I expected, and I thank her for her patience with me as a difficult persons to interview. Overall I think she was fair, and she is not only very smart but more important she is honest, and I would not hesitate to work with her again. But she is fallible like the rest of us, and she blew it badly on some important points.

    The article’s theme suggesting the debate over the parcel tax was slow to heat up was good cover for the Indy’s decision to wait until the last edition before the vote to do in-depth coverage of the issue. It was the Indy that was slow to cover the parcel tax debate, even though it was generating heat in reader letters and guest columns for several weeks leading up to the election. Now the Indy’s last minute reporting on the Measure CC open space parcel tax can not be critiqued by readers in the Indy until after the election. That invites characterization if not as intellectual cowardice then certainly unwelcome political manipulation by the press on the eve of an election.

    While the Indy article has some important indicia of fairness that is appreciated, the overall effect of two feature stories on the parcel tax that take up virtually the entire front page is to push aside all other election issues and focus voters on Measure CC. Unfortunately, the strongest arguments for Measure CC are based on some material errors discussed below, and, of course, those appear with the weakest arguments against the tax on the front page. Inversely, the reader has to go deep into the paper to find the strongest arguments against it, along with the most revealingly weak arguments in favor of the tax. It is in that context that the errors in the article become significant and misinform readers on material issues.

    Lamentably, the most material error in the article becomes thematic and taints a series of misleading conclusions arrayed throughout the Indy’s reporting and analysis. We refer to the inaccurate statement by the Indy that “The measure states that tax money will be used solely to purchase undeveloped parcels ranging in size from two to 80 acres…” This simply is factually incorrect. This false statement then is relied upon by the Indy to attack the accuracy of the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Association (LBTA) mailer opposing the parcel tax, which, among other things, asserts that Measure CC fails to define the criteria for parcel purchases, including location, cost and lot size.

    The lot size issue becomes critical in the story because both the lobbyist for the sponsors of the parcel tax and the Indy dispute the accuracy of the LBTA mailer which features photos of unused parcels that might be purchased with parcel tax dollars. Clearly, both Measure CC sponsors and the Indy are worried about the effectiveness of the LBTA mailer and its photos in rallying opponents of the parcel tax. It is in that context that the Indy’s falsely reports that the LBTA mailer’s photos of some smaller parcels are misleading because, as the Indy incorrectly reports, Measure CC supposedly limits parcel purchases to a minimum of 2 acres. This is a critical and material factual error by the Indy.

    The fact and the truth are that Measure CC contains no such limitation on parcel size, location or cost. That is precisely why the LBTA made the lack of any criteria for voters to know what lands will be purchased one of the primary arguments against the parcel tax in its mailer and its grassroots campaign opposing Measure CC.

    Because the Measure CC ballot language does not limit parcel size or location, the photos featured on the LBTA mailer opposing the parcel tax are an accurate sampling of parcels that are of a size and location that could be purchased with our tax dollars under Measure CC. Yet, the Indy uncritically quotes Paul Freeman asserting that the parcels displayed on the LBTA mailer “…in no way, shape or form could possibly be eligible for acquisition under this measure…There’s no parcel on our map that’s less than two acres…”

    And therein lies the real source of the Indy’s failure to do its only real job, which is to inform the public. You see, Freeman is referring to a two acre limit “on our map,” by which he means the map prepared by the sponsors of Measure CC, but that map is a political advocacy gimmick, it is not an official map, it is not referred to in Measure CC, and it has no legal relevance to Measure CC.

    Yet, the Indy falsely reported to readers that the map somehow establishes a minimum lot size under Measure CC. The Indy article is so disjointed it quotes me accurately saying the parcels in the mailer photos “…are lots that we determined in our best judgment to be in the category of lots that could be subject to purchase” under Measure CC, only to have the reporter mischaracterize that very statement as an “admission” by me that the lots in the mailer photos “…aren’t of proposed or available lots.” That is obviously a garbled rendition of my point. This takes us more than a few steps outside not only the boundaries of fact and truth, but beyond the edge of reality.

    But it gets worse, much worse. The Indy then takes the lobbyist’s unofficial map, which no matter how technically accurate or inaccurate it may be is a political campaign prop, and publishes it on the front page above the fold, taking up close to half the entirety of page one below the newspaper’s masthead. Under the map readers are assured of its authenticity with the caption, “Source: lagunaopenspace.com & Indy Graphics.” This marriage of the content from the website of Measure CC sponsors to the Indy’s own production of the news leaves readers with the highly prejudicial conscious and subliminal message that the map is an authoritative representation of official criteria for parcel purchases under Measure CC.

    This collusion between the Indy and sponsors of Measure CC violates journalistic ethics and it is de facto pro-parcel tax propaganda. It is indistinguishable from the effect it would have if the Indy had published the LBTA anti-parcel tax mailer and vouched for its authenticity.

    Essentially what has happened here is that the Indy has based its report on Measure CC on the political platform of its sponsors, reflecting their goals and plans for how Measure CC should be implemented if it is passed. The Indy article adopts the perspective of the special interest groups that have funded the campaign for Measure CC, and assumes those special interests are able to control the “Citizens Oversight Committee” that will chart open space policy for 20 years, and in that capacity use their own website map to define the criteria for what parcels will be purchased with tax dollars raised under Measure CC. Yet, the truth is that eve if Measure CC is approved the Citizens Oversight Committee would be under no obligation to even consider much less rely on the map the Indy published on its front page. Even if the City officials who support Measure CC agree with that map now or in the future it has no legal or official meaning under the actual language of Measure CC that will be voted on three days after Indy’s readers see the map and read the pro-parcel tax article that it accompanies.

    Again, this is no different than if the Indy were to take the worst case scenario outlined by the LBTA for abuses that could occur under Measure CC and reported that worst case scenario as the official purpose and meaning of Measure CC. Imagine if a caption appeared at the bottom that reads, “Source: Laguna Beach Taxpayers Association & Indy News.”

    Imagine if the Indy used half its front page to publish a LBTA chart stating that Measure CC lacks defined criteria and limits on the location, cost and size of parcels to be purchased, and this will result in conflict with neighbors over public uses of open space parcels in residential neighborhoods. Imagine it that chart also stated that Measure CC will trigger real estate market speculation with negative impact on value of some properties adjacent to publicly owned open space parcels and increases to value of other adjacent properties, and promote influence peddling along with predatory campaign finance practices as lobbyists try to game the outcome of parcel purchases approved by the Citizens Oversight Committee.

    That is precisely the equivalent of what the Indy has done in favor of Measure CC. Indeed, the Indy articles states flat out as fact that the parcel tax will be used “solely” for parcels “from two to 80 acres.” This is ironic, because LBTA members went to City Hall after Measure CC was proposed and asked if there was a map showing what parcels would be eligible for purchase. They were told there is no official map, which is one of the primary reasons why the LBTA decided to oppose Measure CC, and the LBTA mailer specifically so stated.

    The LBTA was the underdog in this fight, it could afford one mailer, and even at that the LBTA and had to beg and borrow to get its mailer out on time to alert voters to the flawed open space policy as well as the flawed tax policy embodied in Measure CC. In contrast, the lobbyist for Measure CC sponsors, had all the money he wanted to produce a dozen glossy mailers, several of them attacking the LBTA mailer. But our friends at the Indy decided to put their thumb on the scale and try to help Measure CC supporters with an 11th hour fix too late for rebuttal.

    Well, it may work, may not. But just in case anyone cares, here are a few additional issues on which the Indy misinformed its readers:

    The Indy reports of the LBTA that “They also argue that open space should be acquired in uninhabited areas, not in neighborhoods.” This is NOT what LBTA has argued. Rather, we have argued that the political, economic and social equities implicated by public ownership of large unpopulated and uninhabited open space areas must be differentiated from the equities of converting smaller privately owned and unused open in populated and inhabited residential areas, and that Measure CC does not give voters a clue about whether parcel tax dollars will be used in a manner that reflects the full range of civic values that must be brought to bear in a well-designed urban open space program.

    I know from personal experience working with Jim Dilley that he understood you do not try to import the Greenbelt model into the township without modifying it in significant ways. We talked about this in 1969 when he educated me about open space policy. Yet the Laguna Greenbelt and Village Laguna pro-Measure CC website refers to creation of an “Inner Greenbelt” under Measure CC, even though Measure CC does not define how the Greenbelt outside of town will work in town.

    LBTA supports the existing open space program under City Council control, because there is direct accountability to voters so it is democratic in the policy making realm and not just at the point of parcel purchase like Measure CC, and so far it seems to take into account social and economic impact of public acquisition and public use of open space in residential settings. LBTA opposes Measure CC because it is silent on criteria and standards that constitute a positive model for open space policy in an urban setting. Measure CC is bad open space policy, and any tax scheme to fund bad open space policy is bad tax policy.

    That is why I am quoted in the Indy article stating that “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.” I go on to add that Village Laguna and the Laguna Greenbelt should not be spending donor resources on political propaganda but instead on “the existing legacy” in “uninhabited, not residential, areas. That does not mean that there should not be an open space program in residential areas, it means there should not be an open space program in residential areas under a flawed model like Measure CC.

    Why do we make this argument? Well just as Rita Robinson would have learned that Measure CC does not limit parcel purchases to more than 2 acres if she had read Measure CC, voters need to look at the definition of what “public uses” will be allowed under Measure CC. Under the current City Council open space program the uses that have been allowed are determined on a case by case basis, and the presumption is against any use the neighborhood does not want.

    The Measure CC model for public use of open space in residential neighborhoods will not longer be a matter of case-by-case policy, at least not without the superimposed terms of Measure CC, which include:

    “For purposes of this Measure, ‘open space uses’ means: greenbelts, watershed areas, wildlife preserves, marine preserves, hiking trails, historical preserves, scientific studies, and vista points. Additional low-impact passive uses may be permitted, subject to a conditional use permit, where the City Council finds that those uses will not conflict with the open space uses described above and will not have a significant effect on the environment.”

    Note scientific studies, vista points, trails and other uses may create an attractive nuisance issue for neighbors, and that other “additional uses” are allowed as well. Yet, the only limitation on these and other additional public uses is that they must not have “a significant effect on the environment.” What about a significant effect on privacy, quality of life, property values?

    The reason for this language and the flawed open space policy embodied in Measure CC is that it was written by people who like to evoke the ghost of Jim Dilley but did not know him. They are lobbyists and retired academic burn outs and political gadflies who know very little about the role of individual rights in sustaining social cohesiveness in a democratic capitalist model of a political economy. They don’t understand the importance of property rights, privacy and freedom in order to define and achieve cooperative collectivist social goals.

    Jim Dilley did, and the fools who wrote Measure CC could not hold up their end of an intelligent discussion with Dilly for four minutes. And since that is about as long as he could suffer a fool he probably wouldn’t bother talking to them at all. No, I take that back. Jim would gladly suffer fools if it helped the Greenbelt cause. That was why he suffered this fool when I was young and brash. What he did with us fools was educate us, and he educated me to both his collectivist values and his awareness of the need to protect the individual rights and the economic and social fabric that made collectivist measures possible.

    Finally, lobbyist Freeman is quoted in the Indy article stating that the Citizen’s Oversight 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.” That is a crock. Since when does the City Council have to justify its actions in writing to a committee it appoints? This scam is written so that the retained legal power of the council is encumbered by the unorthodox political power given to the committee. Any first year student at the Kennedy School of Government will tell you this model for delegation of power is dysfunctional. Freeman must think voters are stupid.

    That is why Martha Lydick recommended in her guest column in the Indy that voters read Measure CC for themselves. For those who want to know, the provisions of Measure CC that define the powers and operations of the Citizens’ Oversight Committee that Freeman tells us is powerless constitute more than one third of the total word count of the ballot language.

    If you think it is a watchdog get your taser gun ready and check out the legal and political edifice of this “powerless” new City Hall regime. Go read Measure CC you twit!

    Think DRB on steroids with $1.5 million on the table to play a cat and mouse game over with the City Council every year. Maybe it should renamed “The willing seller open space special interest group and Citizens’ Oversight Committee lobbyist and consultant guaranteed employment act of 2012.”

    At least in a few days we won’t see anymore of those fatuous “Were you with us when we marched in the canyon” glossy mailers, with an empty frame waiting for you to visualize your own face as an open space hero. It is like secular televangelism. What I would like to know is where was Verna when we marched on City Hall against oppressive bureaucracy.

    It will be the actual words of Measure cc, not what some lobbyist says about it, that that would become the freaking law of the land – sorry – if the voters fall for all the phony appeals for the cause, appeals to people’s need to be part of something, even if it actually is not what is is held out to be.

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