Open-space advocates will ask Laguna Beach voters to again tax themselves $20 million over 20 years to claim 550 acres within city limits that could potentially be developed.
Citizens for Preservation of Open Space, a political action committee, filed their notice of intent to collect signatures for a tax-imposing ballot initiative earlier this week, Asst. City Clerk Lisette Chel confirmed.
Once the city attorney validates the proposal’s legality, initiative supporters have six months to collect signatures from 15 percent, or 2,700 registered voters, who endorse putting the measure to a vote. The county registrar says 18, 915 Laguna residents were registered as of Friday, April 15.
The new initiative’s supporters include longtime open space advocates such as Ron Chilcote, Elisabeth Brown and Ann Christoph, all of whom in 1990 championed a similar cause: convincing Laguna voters to tax themselves for a $20 million bond measure to save Laguna Canyon from development. Endorsed by 80 percent of voters 20 years ago, the measure seeded a nascent greenbelt that now spans 23,000 acres of chaparral-covered canyons and ocean-view hilltops that includes the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park, as well the City of Irvine’s open space preserve. It is the second largest coastal preserve in Southern California after the Santa Monica Mountains. Those bonds will be paid off this year.
Helped by some major private land donations as well as state and federal funds, the city, too, in recent years has added incrementally to the greenbelt. One of its most recent additions, for example, the Arch Beach Heights View Park, opened in December. City officials in 2007 gave the green light to remake 32 lots acquired from two property owners for $1.2 million into a one-acre. From the narrow strip below Quivera Street, residents now have an improved stairway to access hiking trails in Oro Canyon, project manager Wade Brown said.
But future government funding for open space purchases seems unlikely, open-space advocates say.
“We now want to address our unfinished business – Laguna’s inner greenbelt,” said a statement from Brown, a spokeswoman for the new initiative and longtime president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., which promotes open space preservation.
“There is one thing certain: development pressure will increase in Laguna Beach because it is a desirable place to live until every single piece is developed irrespective of an up or down economy,” said Derek Ostensen, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. In the last decade, the foundation partnered with the city to make open space land buys with $12 million in park bonds approved by voters in 2000. Those funds will be exhausted this year, he said.
Though open space is integral to the town’s character, much land that people assume is open space in areas such as Arch Beach Heights, Rim Rock Canyon and South Laguna is actually private property that could be fenced off or developed in the future, said Ostensen, who, like Christoph, declined to identify coveted parcels to avoid price escalation.
“This effort is one of the only viable ways to preserve these irreplaceable areas forever,” said Ostensen, though the foundation has yet to take a position on the initiative.
The new proposal, which would require approval by two-thirds of those voting, would add a $120 annual tax to each parcel for the next 20 years, filling a $1 million a year kitty for open space purchases. As it stands, just $36,000 remains in the city’s open space fund, which lacks a dedicated funding source, City Manager John Pietig said.
Occasionally as parcels became available, the City Council has transferred general funds to make open space purchases, he said. Nothing was budgeted for this year.
But last March, of 400 residents polled by telephone, 90 percent would vote for the 1990 measure again. “It surprised us how positive it was,” said Paul Freeman, a former council member, who also polled voters in 1990. “It’s an appreciable change in intensity of support,” he said.
The proposed flat-tax initiative differs from the previous bond measure, which imposed differing tax assessments based on property value. The initiative’s language also specifically prohibits eminent domain seizures, thus limiting deal-making to willing sellers. Authority for making acquisitions would rest with elected officials, who are also required to appoint a watch-dog committee that would issue an annual report on the use of tax funds.
For the first time, the measure also requires the city to set aside 4 percent of the assessment for open-space maintenance.
“After these are purchased, we’re done,” said Christoph, weary of development fights.
While open-space proponents express confidence voters will support the measure, a wild card remains on the table. If state officials set a November election, any local measure would be consolidated on a general ballot that is likely to also include less popular statewide tax measures.