Rift Over Tax Threatens Unity in Santa Clarita : $275-Million Road Measure Raises Questions of Need, Cost
Residents of the young city of Santa Clarita are to vote in November on a $275-million road tax that could guide transportation planning in the burgeoning region for decades. And although the issue is roads, the election could provide a barometer of civic unity.
The election will come almost two years to the day after four separate Santa Clarita Valley communities--Newhall, Canyon Country, Valencia and Saugus--voted to band together and become the county’s 85th city, culminating a 30-year struggle for self-rule.
But unlike the last election, which showcased civic unity, this election could indicate whether competing interests will divide those four communities--and whether similar rifts exist between the city and the unincorporated communities that surround it.
At issue is Measure P, an initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot that would raise up to $275 million for roads in the Santa Clarita Valley over 40 years. The initiative, which requires a two-thirds vote for passage, would raise property owners’ annual tax bills by $75 to $200.
When the City Council placed Measure P on the ballot, council members said they hoped the issue would not pit one community against another. Valencia and Newhall, conveniently close to freeways, are known for better planning of development and generally suffer fewer traffic problems than Canyon Country and Saugus, communities with hodgepodge development and few main arteries.
City Unity an Issue
Although some residents promise to vote against Measure P simply because they oppose new taxes, others say they will not tax themselves to bail out areas far removed from their neighborhoods.
“Valencia, Newhall--we don’t have a problem here,” said Tamsie Irvan, a Valencia resident. Measure P, she said, will build roads that will pour unwanted traffic onto Valencia’s well-planned streets. “All they want to do is siphon traffic through us.”
Asked whether appeals for city unity could persuade her to change her mind, Irvan replied, “I never go to Canyon Country and I know people there never come here.”
The Chamber of Commerce in unincorporated Castaic opposes the tax as well. “A lot of our money would go to solve their problems,” said Dennis Havranek, chamber president.
Supporters of Measure P say that view is shortsighted. Traffic is a valley-wide problem, they say, and the tax ultimately will help all motorists in the area. The proponents add that Measure P is a quick way to improve movement on the clogged system of roads the city inherited from the indifferent and inefficient Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
If approved, Measure P would create a giant assessment district, known as a Mello-Roos district after the state legislators who wrote the law allowing the creation of such districts. In this case, the district would be administered by the Santa Clarita Road Financing Authority, a joint agency consisting of Santa Clarita and county officials.
No Quick Fix
The tax would be levied on property roughly lying within the William S. Hart Union High School District. The rural community of Val Verde and senior citizens would be exempt.
Lou Garasi, a member of the authority and of the Roads Now Committee, frequently quotes a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments that predicts the valley will need $340 million in road improvements to keep traffic moving smoothly by 2010. Measure P will not support all of the needed road construction projects or solve all the valley’s problems, but it will raise millions of dollars quickly, Garasi said.
Garasi also noted that the entire Santa Clarita Valley was paralyzed last month when a tanker truck overturned and blocked the Antelope Valley Freeway, forcing traffic onto jammed city streets. “When something like that can shut down our valley--that is scary,” he said.
Opponents of Measure P, however, said the measure reneges on pledges by cityhood advocates that incorporation would not result in new taxes. Many are bitter.
“They’re trying to get around Proposition 13,” said Tom Haner of Canyon Country. “The gasoline tax is supposed to build our roads.”
If he had known Measure P was in his future, Haner said, he never would have voted for cityhood. “I regret it,” he said.
Haner also said the new roads would only promote more growth, a theory challenged by Measure P supporters who say new roads are needed to handle the growth that has already occurred.
Other opponents agree that the valley’s roads are tired and sick, but question whether the road tax is the cure.
“I’m not opposed to taxes, I know they’re inevitable,” said Kenneth Dean, an unsuccessful City Council candidate two years ago. But Measure P is ill-planned and misguided, Dean said. “These are bad taxes.”
Dean, Irvan and Haner are members of SMRT--Stop Mello-Roos Tax, which has already launched a campaign against the measure. The members have begun walking precincts, handing out flyers, speaking before community groups and are even preparing a float denouncing the tax for the annual Frontier Days Parade next Saturday.
The float will depict a boat full of valley residents hitting the tip of a tax iceberg, suggesting that Measure P is just the first of many taxes residents will be asked to pay as the city grows. Haner, the float’s driver, plans to make the ship and iceberg a familiar sight. “I’m going to be driving that all over town,” he said.
Precinct Battle Looms
The Roads Now Committee will not have a float but has begun fund raising and has about $3,000 in the bank. Garasi said committee members will also walk precincts, speak to civic groups, set up a phone bank and perhaps hire a political consultant.
But as the campaign heats up, will local interests drive wedges between the communities that created the municipal amalgam known as Santa Clarita?
Measure P proponent Garasi and opponent Dean each say no. “I don’t think it’s going to polarize the community,” Garasi said. Both men said their campaigns will not pit the interests of Valencia and Newhall against those of Saugus and Canyon Country.
Still, the fallout from a heated controversy over a bridge construction project earlier this year suggests how the Measure P debate could proceed.
In that dispute, many Valencia residents opposed a bridge supported by the Circle J residential development in Newhall, saying the bridge would route traffic onto Valencia’s streets. Circle J residents said the bridge would provide a secondary exit out of their secluded community.
The City Council eventually endorsed the bridge, despite warnings from Irvan and other Valencia residents that they would retaliate by opposing the road tax. Some Circle J residents, saying they wanted to promote the general good of the city, pledged to back the tax.
Today, some Circle J residents say they will indeed support Measure P--but quietly. If Circle J gets involved, one resident said, “it may be counterproductive. It might serve as a lightning rod for those who are opposed” to Measure P and strengthen lingering bitterness over the bridge dispute.
SANTA CLARITA ROAD TAX INITIATIVE
Various small canyons dividing the Santa Clarita Valley prevent road planners from laying out grids of interlocking streets. Transportation planners have likened the area’s major roads to the fingers of an outstretched hand. Few roads connect the fingers, forcing motorists to drive through the palm to get to destinations across town or to reach a freeway. The proposed road tax would raise $275 million over 40 years. The first phase of construction calls for seven projects to be funded entirely or partly by the tax. Future projects would be selected by Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County.
1 Newhall Ranch Road: Construction of a bridge near McBean Parkway.
2 Wiley Canyon Road: Major roadway improvement from Lyons Avenue to Calgrove Boulevard.
3 San Fernando Road: Major roadway improvement from Bouquet Canyon Road to 15th Street.
4 Rio Vista Road: New road from Bouquet Canyon Road to Antelope Valley Freeway.
5 Via Princessa: Extension from San Fernando Road eastward to Rainbow Glen.
6 Golden Valley Road: Extension from Antelope Valley Freeway past Soledad Canyon Road, intersecting with future California 126.
7 Soledad Canyon Road: Major roadway improvement from Sand Canyon Road to Shadow Pines Boulevard.