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Environmentalists May Be Up a Creek on Orange Bond

Kathy King doesn’t want to sound negative, but she can’t shake the sinking feeling that she and her environmental compatriots in Orange have been had.

Savvy as she is about the art of political strategizing, King even grudgingly has to take her hat off to the people who she is convinced have lured the open-space advocates into a brier patch.

The synopsis of the little ballot-box drama is as follows: On Tuesday, voters in Orange will vote on a bond issue that, if passed, would let the city to buy up land around Santiago Creek and maintain it as permanent open space.

Environmentalists in Orange see the creek issue as a historic opportunity--their equivalent of Laguna Beach residents who agreed to buy Irvine Co. land in Laguna Canyon as the only way to thwart development.

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The measure got on the ballot because several months ago the Santiago Creek Greenway Alliance, buoyed by a private survey indicating that citizens would vote for the open space, pushed for a ballot measure.

At the time, the developers consortium known as Santiago Creek Associates was planning a 110-home project with virtually no open space. But the consortium agreed to work with the alliance and the city to put the measure on this week’s ballot.

Since then, that project was modified to allow for an open-space component. The current proposal calls for up to 240 condos, but with 13 acres set aside for open space.

Therefore, if Measure Y fails, the project on the board will provide some open space. And King fears that voters--not eager to impose even the modest tax increase that voting for Y would entail--may justify a vote against the measure on the ground that they’ll still get some open space.

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King is convinced that the developers, represented by Frank Elfend, a land-use consultant and well known around the county for his political smarts, knew that getting a two-thirds vote to raise taxes would be a long shot.

Did the environmentalists get snookered? I asked King.

“Absolutely, they got snookered,” she said. “They should not have allowed this to be put on the ballot, but they didn’t realize it at the time.”

She said a committee working with the developers was making headway in preserving the creek area and didn’t need to risk a citywide vote, especially on a bond issue requiring two-thirds approval.

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Then why did the alliance buy into putting the issue before voters?

“Because they were naive,” King said, “and maybe they’ll prove me wrong. They thought they could win.”

Sounds like a perfect setup, I said. “It is a setup,” King said, “and they have no choice but to proceed with this little charade, but there may be a surprise come Tuesday.”

For his part, Elfend said he’s merely followed the wishes of the environmentalists, who wanted a vote.

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It’s possible, he said, that Orange voters may approve Measure Y.

Lost in the political intrigue is the green-way issue itself. Santiago Creek meanders through Orange, virtually bisecting it. King and the alliance want it to remain a pristine creek, augmented with trails and greenery.

If the measure passes, alliance founder Howard deCruyenaere said, “we would have significant open space in the center of the city, which a lot of great cities have. A green-way running through the city would be a tremendous benefit that a lot of cities have, but we don’t.”

Acknowledging that Orange has been growth-oriented in recent years, deCruyenaere said a favorable vote Tuesday “would be very significant, it would make history here in Orange.”

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“It’s different than in Laguna Beach,” he said. “People there are more concerned, maybe more aware of the importance of open-space area. But there are a lot here who realize it’s important and see it slipping away. To anyone who’s lived here over time, they’re saying, ‘That field went, that hillside is gone. Can we do anything to leave some parts of it alone?’ ”

King said the City Council should have taken it upon itself to set aside the creek as a permanent green-way. That was part of the genius behind the developers’ willingness to go along with the ballot measure, she said.

“It’s brilliant, because it takes the council off the hook for making a policy decision it didn’t want to make in an election year,” King said.

Councilwoman Joanne Coontz as much as conceded King’s point.

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Why not just take upon yourselves to preserve the creek as open space? I asked Coontz.

“Because it involves money,” she said. “We’re in a budget shortfall, and we have to be concerned about how we operate in the city of Orange.”

As for the green-way issue, she said: “There’s been a great deal of controversy expressed at meetings (by environmentalists). Whether that’s the true feelings of the way the community feels, we don’t know. People say they like a green-way, but they’re not sure they want to pay for it.”

Come Tuesday, Orange voters will determine whether Kathy King’s sinking feeling was right that the ever-diminishing open space in Orange County will continue to be going, going, gone.

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Like her, I hope she’s wrong.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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