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Poll to Test Support for Buying Open Space : Environment: Results would help Laguna Laurel foes decide whether to put a measure to buy land on the November ballot.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Irvine Co., working with a group of area environmentalists and government representatives, has hired a Sacramento-based pollster to survey county residents and determine whether they would back a November open-space initiative that could block one of the company’s own projects, county and company officials said Wednesday.

“We feel that a public opinion poll is an important part of finding out whether people in this county are willing to tax themselves for additional open-space preservation,” said Dawn McCormick, a spokeswoman for the company. “We’re just trying to be helpful.”

The poll, said to cost about $30,000, will ask 700 residents whether they are willing to pay more in taxes in return for acquiring parks and recreation areas, especially in Laguna Canyon, where the Irvine Co. wants to build 3,200 homes. J. Moore Methods, a widely known and highly regarded polling firm, will conduct the survey.

Environmentalists furiously oppose the proposed Laguna Laurel development in Laguna Canyon and are hoping that county residents will agree to pay more in taxes so that the government can buy the land and preserve it. The tab for acquiring the 2,100-acre parcel is still undetermined, but estimates indicate that it could be about $100 million.

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The company has agreed to consider that proposal and has met for several months with area environmentalists and representatives of the Orange County and Laguna Beach governments. That committee commissioned the poll, an extensive questionnaire that is in its fifth draft. Members of the group met Tuesday night to review questions but declined to detail them specifically for fear of biasing the sample.

“We’re trying to see how voters might respond to acquisition of some open space,” said Paul Freeman, a Laguna Beach public affairs consultant who is working with the committee, known as the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group. “And we’re asking that in the context of other issues that might be on the ballot in November.”

Those other issues have raised concerns among supporters of an open-space initiative, who worry that this year may be an especially difficult time to float such a proposal. Several other tax initiatives and spending measures are jockeying for a place on the November ballot, and some observers are concerned that if they all appear at once, voters might reject the lot of them.

Most of the projects vying for a spot on the ballot would be financed through the sale of general obligation bonds to be repaid by taxpayers over a 30-year period. But general obligation bonds require two-thirds approval of county residents, and Orange County voters have not approved one since 1957.

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As a result, the poll, which will be conducted in mid-June, will include a section that asks residents to rank open-space acquisition against such topics as improved transportation and jail and court construction, all of which could land on the ballot.

“There’s no sense putting this on the ballot if there’s not a chance in hell that it will pass,” said Sandy Lucas, who represents Laguna Canyon property owners. “Our polling results are going to help us determine how it might fare.”

In an effort to bolster support for acquiring the Laguna Laurel property, supporters of a November ballot measure are also considering expanding it to cover park and open-space purchases in other parts of the county, Lucas added. That would give residents of developed cities such as Santa Ana some incentive to vote for the proposal, according to several members of the advisory group.

“We’re looking at a Christmas-tree type of effect where each city would receive money to buy open space or use it for parks or recreation,” Lucas said. “That would make it more expensive, and it may not give us the full amount to purchase Laguna Laurel, but it would help.”

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Michael Phillips, director of Laguna Greenbelt Inc. and the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, said the poll will give members of the advisory group a clearer sense of where support for such a measure lies.

Results of the poll are expected to be available by early July and would likely be shared with the county as officials there prepare their own analysis of Laguna Laurel and open space alternatives. The supervisors, at their Aug. 7 meeting, will review the open space proposals alongside other possible ballot measures to decide which ones should appear on the November ballot.


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