A group of environmentalists is threatening to fight a proposed sales tax for traffic improvements unless the county sponsors a bond issue designed to give them perhaps $2 million or more to buy land and protect it from development.
County officials say they are seriously considering the deal, which is similar to a compromise struck last year in Contra Costa County. Some proponents of the half-cent levy, though, think the environmentalists lack the clout to force the issue.
"The environmental community is saying that we've been left out of the process for so long that we need something on our side for us to support a sales tax," said Elizabeth Brown, who proposed the deal as president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., an influential environmental group.
"The roads that will be built with that (sales tax) money will only make it easier for new development to occur," Brown said. "Some of us are not interested in helping with any more transportation stuff without something on the other (open space preservation) side, and that's the message we're trying to get out . . . . There is no money to purchase the open space at the city and county level."
Plans for Referendum
The Orange County Transportation Commission, chief sponsor of the sales-tax proposal, is formulating plans for a Nov. 7 tax referendum intended to help raise $3.1 billion for a 20-year, $11.6-billion program of county traffic improvements.
Brown believes her group has muscle enough to scuttle that measure. After all, she and other activists helped defeat a 1-cent transportation sales-tax measure in 1984.
"We've been down this sales-tax road before, and we can end up with the same result," Brown said earlier this week.
The deal worked out last year in Contra Costa County, involving a $2.25-million open-space bond act, helped secure passage of that county's half-cent transportation sales tax.
Some tax proponents, however, doubt that Brown has the power she claims. They note that she and other environmentalists were the leaders for the under-funded and understaffed campaign for Measure A, the countywide slow-growth initiative that voters rejected (56% to 44%) last June.
John Simon, a lawyer who led the developer-financed effort against Measure A--and who said he likes the open-space idea--said Brown does not have the troops or the money to be a serious political threat, except in a close election.
Stanley T. Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said, "We're listening with an open mind" to Brown's idea, which even she concedes is still in the "formative stages."
"I guess it depends on what specifics she (Brown) comes up with," Oftelie said.
Formal Proposal Hoped For
Brown said the open-space issue will be discussed by a transportation committee next week in the hope that a formal proposal can be presented to the OCTC at its May 8 meeting.
There could be at least one roadblock, however: Developers, including officials of the powerful Irvine Co., say they will support such a bond act only if its defeat does not bar collection of the proposed transportation sales tax should that measure pass.
"We think that as long as it can go on the ballot and not be directly linked to the sales tax so that it (the environmental bond act) doesn't have to pass, we could support the idea," said Irvine Co. Vice President Hugh Fitzpatrick. "But there would have to be ground rules."
Among other things, Fitzpatrick said, developers will probably want assurance that the open space bond act would be general and not specify which land would be purchased.
Brown said she would use some of the money to buy Irvine Co. land in Laguna Canyon--land that the firm has targeted for development. She said she would like the bond issue to raise a sum at least as high as the one environmentalists in Contra Costa County obtained.
'This Is a Quid Pro' Quo
Norm Grossman, a member of both Laguna Greenbelt and the advisory panel that recently wrote the Board of Supervisors' new growth management regulations, said, "This is a quid pro (quo)--the same as it was in Contra Costa--based on a realization that growth management involves other things, such as preservation of natural resources, and that means open space."
Grossman added that if a sales tax election is held in November, it is unlikely that an open-space bond act could be drafted in time to be placed on the ballot as a companion measure. Instead, he said, there would have to be some agreement with sales-tax sponsors that they would support the open-space bond act in the June, 1990, election.
Brown and Grossman have been active members of the Citizens Advisory Committee, a group appointed by county officials to review the Transportation Commission's 20-year traffic improvement plan. The improvement plan is a document required by state law before the proposed half-cent sales tax can be placed on a countywide ballot.
In addition, Brown recently joined the executive committee of a new group led by Pacific Bell Vice President Reed Royalty called the Orange County Foundation for Consensus in Transportation. That group is researching transportation matters in anticipation of the sales tax election.
"The objective is to bring a lot of potentially divergent viewpoints around the table," said Todd Nicholson of the Industrial League of Orange County, a diversified group of business and civic leaders. "If there are large blocks of people out there who do not have some ownership in the plan (the county's traffic improvement program), then we're going to have some difficulty at the polls."
Added Brown: "The only reason I'm involved in these (transportation) meetings is the open space issue. If it dies, then I don't see how I can campaign for the sales tax."
Lawyer Simon is leading a group that has paid for a public opinion poll on the sales tax issue--Simon declined last week to release the results--and is paying $7,000 to Sacramento political consultant D.J. Smith as reimbursement for extra work done after Smith's consulting contract with the county Transportation Commission expired in February.
Smith, who has advocated tying an open space measure to the proposed sales tax, was a consultant to the proponents of the tax measure approved in Contra Costa County.