Group wants tax to buy open spaces

A citizens group announced Monday a drive to put a tax initiative on the ballot to buy up vacant city parcels to preserve pockets of green space within city limits.

Citizens for the Preservation of Open Space is looking for voter approval of a flat parcel tax that would cost each Laguna Beach property owner $10 a month for 20 years. The tax revenue would provide the funding for open-space acquisitions.

"This is not a city-led initiative," Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson said. "Residents in the past have indicated that they treasure our open space. If the voters want to tax themselves to purchase and preserve our open space, that is their choice."

The initiative does not require council approval to be put on the ballot. City Atty. Philip Kohn has two weeks to prepare a ballot title and a 500-word summary.

Once titled and summarized, signature gathering would begin. Signatures of 1,800 registered voters are required to put an initiative on the ballot for a regular election; 2,700 are required for a special election, which costs more.

"The committee plans to raise funds for a special election," said Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman, one of the three Laguna Greenbelt Inc. board members on the committee.

A vote of two-thirds plus one must approve the initiative for the measure to pass.

An estimated 550 acres are at stake.

"There is no other funding available for acquisitions," Grossman said. "We were encouraged to move ahead by the results of a poll taken last year to gauge the interest of residents in the concept of inner-city acquisitions. The acquisitions would be approved by the council."

The poll was conducted before the December floods, but during the depths of the recession, said Paul Freeman, initiative consultant and former councilman.

"When the group first approached me a year ago, I asked if this was the right time," Freeman said. "The answer is yes."

Grossman said the favorable poll response was an even higher percentage than the response to the 1990 poll when voters approved by almost 80% the bond to buy Irvine Co. land in Laguna Canyon.

"We asked a question then about just buying visible open space and the answer was, 'No, buy it all,' "Grossman said. "The response today was similar. People won't give a blank check, but there was overwhelming support for the simple idea of preserving open space in the city."

The current proposal would raise about $20 million, the same amount of the bond to buy Laguna Laurel parcels, which were eventually merged into the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, administered by the county.

"One of the virtues of the flat parcel tax is it keeps the leverage in the city," Freeman said.

The per-parcel tax is not based on assessed valuation. All property owners would be taxed equally.

Four percent of the annual tax would be reserved for maintenance and fire safety, also a benefit to all residents, Freeman said.

"This would be first time that I know of that money would set aside to keep open space safe," Freeman said.

Donations from Temple Hills Community Assn., South Laguna Civic Assn., Top of the World Neighborhood Assn., Laguna Greenbelt, the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Laguna Canyon Foundation, Village Laguna, and Foundation for Sustainability funded the poll.

The initiative creates a watch dog committee similar to those that oversaw expenditures and procedures for Laguna Beach Unified School District after a bond was approved and the half-cent temporary sales tax that helped pay for the reconstruction of the city infrastructure destroyed in the Bluebird Landslide and established a Disaster Fund, Grossman said.

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