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Split Council Rejects Hike in Developer Tax : Open space: Majority defeats a bid to put increase on new homes on the March ballot.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A proposal to raise taxes on developers to pay for preserving open space has been rejected by a divided City Council, which said the city should study the issue more closely before asking voters to approve the tax increase.

“I have received numerous, numerous phone calls from citizens who are against any kind of tax increase unless it’s for essential services,” Councilman Mike Markey said during Tuesday night’s debate.

Markey, along with council members Andy Fox and Judy Lazar, voted down an effort to put a tax increase on new homes on the March 26 ballot.

The split decision--another in a series of 3-2 votes--came after testy debate between the three council members and Mayor Jaime Zukowski and Councilwoman Elois Zeanah.

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Zeanah said it is hypocritical for the council to adopt a goal of preserving open space within city limits but fail to raise enough money to purchase land threatened with development.

“This is not a tax on residents. This is only a request for developers to pay their fair share of acquiring open space,” Zeanah said during the debate. “There’s not one of you up here who didn’t campaign on preserving open space.”

The city’s park fund dwindled to about $5,000 after the council agreed in September to spend $85,000 on 4.6 acres of hilltop land owned by James and Darlean Kallas.

Zeanah also said $1 million was diverted from the park fund to help pay for the Civic Arts Plaza. But Lazar retorted that the money paid for the park outside the arts center, which also houses City Hall.

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City officials now charge developers up to $200 for each new home, a fee that has not increased in 23 years. Other cities charge home builders $1,000 or more for each residence to secure funds to buy open space.

Zeanah and Zukowski had not recommended a specific increase, but argued that voters should be allowed to determine whether the tax on home builders be raised for the first time in decades. They pointed out that open-space preservation has consistently ranked as one of the most important issues to the community.

“We have a situation in today’s market where the new housing is paying less than new housing 20 years ago,” Zukowski said. “Today, there is nothing left in our existing park fund. Today, there is no fund to use when we want to protect a resource from development.”

But the other council members disagreed. Any ballot measure asking whether the developer fee should be raised should accompany a bond proposal now being studied jointly by the city and the park and school districts, they said.

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“We are stabbing ourselves in the foot at best,” Lazar said. “We have to be comprehensive in our planning. Doing it singly is not the appropriate thing to do at this time.”

The only public speaker during the debate said the city already charges too many fees.

“When you tax a developer, eventually you tax constituents because developers don’t keep the houses,” said James Spykerman of Fillmore, who said he wants to move to Thousand Oaks.

Fox said there was no reason to rush Zeanah’s proposal to the March ballot.

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Instead, he recommended that the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, a joint panel of city and park officials, create a priority list of the vacant land in and around Thousand Oaks that should be purchased by the city or park district.

“This is not a speed item,” he said. “The goal is to find a funding mechanism within the next two years. If we increase a tax on developers, it just makes it that much more difficult to buy a home in Thousand Oaks.”

But Zeanah and Zukowski accused Fox and the others of scuttling the proposed ballot measure and preventing voters from considering the tax increase.

The open-space panel has already compiled a priority list of the most desirable parcels that the city should buy, the two councilwomen said.

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“This material is available,” Zukowski said. “It just hasn’t been acted on.”

Zeanah was more blunt: “It’s redundant. It’s moot. We have all that. This is just a political ploy.”

The ballot measure issue was brought to the council as a recommendation from the general plan review committee, which includes Zeanah and Lazar.

But Lazar complained that she never approved bringing the proposal before the council, saying she did not attend the meeting and does not support the recommendation.

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“Had I been there, I would have spoken against it at the time,” she said.


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