District Has Unusual 'Landowner' Status

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Unlike most government bodies where the "one man, one vote" rule prevails, the Santa Margarita Water District is one of last two remaining water districts in Orange County where those with the most valuable land have the greatest number of votes.

The state law governing "landowner districts" states that "each voter shall have one vote for each dollar's worth of land to which he holds title," which means that giant developers like the Santa Margarita Co. and its Rancho Santa Margarita subsidiary have more than 100 million votes and Fieldstone Trabuco has more than 50 million votes.

Together, their votes represent more than half the total cast in 1987, the most recent election held.

This virtually assures these big developers of control over the water agency that pays for--and is then charged with getting reimbursed for--the pipelines and other improvements built to serve the housing subdivisions and commercial projects the developers build.

"It is impossible for those people who live (in the Santa Margarita Water District) to control their own destiny," said Alexander Bowie, legal counsel for several water districts, including the Irvine Ranch Water District. "The people who live there do not have the majority of voting control."

Most water districts have already altered their method of voting from a "landowner voting district" to a "resident voting district" by having 25% of registered voters in the district petition for a change. But that can only occur when at least 50% of the assessable area in a district "is devoted to and developed for residential, industrial or non-agricultural commercial use."

Given the development plans that are contemplated for the Santa Margarita district and the nature of the terrain, that day might not come before the 22nd Century, if ever.

However, there is another mechanism for residents to gain at least some control of the district by getting it carved into five separate divisions--each of which would then elect one of the five board members.

For that to occur, residents must gather, within a six-month period, the signatures of more than 50% of the district's registered voters and file their petition with the County Board of Supervisors at least 140 days before the next election in 1995.

Even then, residents would probably be able to elect only one or two board members, not a majority.

Water Wisdom

Orange County consumers get their water from three main sources: wells, aqueducts from Northern California through the State Water Project, and the Colorado River. Imported water is distributed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California through a variety of water districts in the county.

The MWD was formed in 1928 to import water from the Sierra Nevada mountains and meet a growing demand. Before that, local wells, rivers or streams provided the county's water.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County was formed in 1951 to help MWD distribute water to agencies throughout the county. The district provides water to 23 other local agencies.

There are 18 independent water districts in Orange County, and 38 water agencies distributing water. Sixteen cities have their own water departments.

Water districts are special, independent districts formed to provide water to agricultural or urban areas within their boundaries. They are governed by boards of directors elected by the residents or landowners within their districts.

Orange County has only two of the old-fashioned California water districts: Santa Margarita, much of which spreads over the vast Rancho Mission Viejo, and Los Alisos, in Lake Forest. In this kind of district, the number of votes a citizen gets is based on the amount of land owned.

One publicly owned utility--the Southern California Water Co.--provides service to Los Alamitos, Cypress, Rossmoor, Stanton and parts of Placentia, Yorba Linda and Cowan Heights. It is governed by the state Public Utilities Commission instead of a publicly elected board of directors.

Water rates vary widely among the districts, from a $2.87 minimum monthly charge in the city of Brea to an $18 minimum monthly rate in the Santiago County Water District.

Source: Municipal Water District of Orange County

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