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State High Court Hears Challenge to Freeways

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court, in a hard-fought test of the initiative process, was asked Tuesday to allow a group of Irvine residents to challenge plans for a $1.3-billion freeway project in growth-conscious Orange County.

A lawyer for the Committee of Seven Thousand, a local citizens’ organization, told the justices that the state Constitution guarantees voters the right to decide whether the city should participate in a regional plan to use developer fees to build three new highways in the area.

Fredric D. Woocher, of the nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest, urged the court to uphold an initiative sponsored by the group to require a citizens’ vote on any such proposal. “The people have reserved to themselves that legislative power,” he said.

Question for Officials

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But attorneys for builders and transportation officials contended that the state statute that authorized the highway project reserved the question strictly for local governmental bodies, which could move faster and more efficiently in meeting a region-wide problem.

“This case is the first of its kind,” said Alvin S. Kaufer of Los Angeles, an attorney for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California and other groups. “Here, the traditional state function of building freeways is being funneled to local agencies. . . . It is not subject to initiative and referendum.”

The case came to the court amid a broad controversy over growth and congestion in the fast-developing county.

The citizens’ group, known as COST, and some other residents oppose the freeways because of concern about their environmental consequences, fearing that new roads will worsen traffic congestion by inducing more-unbridled growth.

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Cite Need for Highways

Developers, officials and other supporters of the proposed highways said that they are needed to help accommodate new growth and increasing traffic throughout the Southern California region. It is unfair--and never intended by the Legislature--to allow citizens in one locality to challenge the transportation needs of the larger community, they said. New highways for the area have been under discussion for nearly a decade. But the state, along with the federal government the traditional source of highway funding, never agreed to finance the project. In 1984, voters in Orange County rejected a proposed tax increase to pay for new freeways. Local planners then came up with a proposal to help finance the project with fees paid by developers on new construction. The state legislation that authorized the project said the county Board of Supervisors and “the city council of any city” in the county could require the payment of the fees. Most such governing bodies--including the Irvine City Council--approved the fees. But the Irvine citizens’ group gathered more than 7,000 signatures on a petition for a “citizens right to vote” initiative that would require voter approval of any developer fees in that city.

The initiative was challenged in court by builders, however, and an Orange County Superior Court judge barred it from the ballot.

Upheld by Appeal Court

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A state Court of Appeal in Santa Ana upheld the decision, ruling that freeways are not a municipal issue but a “matter of statewide concern"--and that the question of participation had been delegated exclusively to boards of supervisors and city councils.

The state Supreme Court then agreed to hear an appeal by the backers of the initiative.

Lawyers in the case said that an eventual vote against the freeway plan by Irvine voters would not mean that the highways could not be built--but that it could jeopardize the project by forcing officials to seek other, already-scarce financing. Under the current proposal, half the cost of the project would be paid from developer fees--a quarter of which would come from Irvine.

In Tuesday’s hour-long hearing before the court in Los Angeles, some of the justices appeared to doubt that the state law authorizing the project was intended to allow for local initiatives.

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At one point, Justice Marcus M. Kaufman asked skeptically how the citizens of one city could intercede on a “matter of statewide concern,” and Justice Allen E. Broussard expressed uneasiness over the “Balkanization” that might occur through such use of the initiative process.

Argues Against Initiative

Clayton H. Parker of Santa Ana, representing the Orange County Transportation Commission, argued that the local initiative should not be permitted on a clearly regional issue. “This is for the benefit of the entire county and Southern California,” Parker said.

Kaufer, representing the builders, said that the Legislature was justified in leaving the decision with governmental officials--rather than the voters--because of the inherent complexities of the developer-fee program.

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“The City Council has the staff and can investigate and resolve a complicated problem better than the electorate,” he said.

‘Very Paternalistic’

In reply, Woocher contended it is “very paternalistic” to say that the matter is too complex for the voters. “That runs against the grain of our form of government, which says the power resides with the people,” he said.

City Atty. Roger A. Grable of Irvine told the court that the City Council now supports the right of residents to vote on the developer-fee proposal.

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The justices are expected to rule in the case during the coming year.


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