Community Commentary: Support for the Open Space Initiative

Is it consistent for a fiscal conservative to support raising taxes to buy open space? On the surface, the answer may appear to be no, but on closer analysis, and particularly in this case, the answer is clearly yes for me.

As a fiscal conservative, I prefer taxes be as low as possible, for many reasons beyond the scope of this commentary. However, I do believe that there is a legitimate need for government and taxation to do or pay for things and services that are needed, but would not otherwise be possible, including our armed forces, police and fire departments, the building of roads and highways and the situation at hand.

Additionally, the taxation for the Open Space Initiative provides protections against the concerns I normally have about tax increases.

As discussed in more detail below, these protections include:

•A finite period for the tax.

•A small per-parcel amount.

•Tax revenue that must be spent only a very specific purpose: the purchase of open space.

•The purchase is from willing sellers (no eminent domain).

•The tax would not be imposed on us; it requires a two-thirds vote of the people.

For me, the only real issue is whether the purchase of open space generally, and this particular open space specifically, is sufficiently meritorious to justify raising additional tax revenue.

I believe the answer is, yes.

One of Laguna's most distinguishing features is the undeveloped open lands in our hills and canyons. This feature helps define our special character and provides aesthetic, recreational and economic benefits. Our open space is a real and tangible reason our property values are stronger than most California coastal cities. There is no question that open space contributes materially to our high quality of life in Laguna.

Building out the hills and canyons might provide marginal fiscal benefits. But in my book it's not worth it. The open space we would be buying is geologically sensitive and difficult on which to build. I see no reason to invite more problems affecting public safety with hillside instability or to erase what little is left of our natural environment. Therefore preserving the city's remaining open space makes good sense to me.

That's why I support the new open space initiative, the purpose of which is to acquire — from willing sellers only — undeveloped land to preserve in perpetuity as public open space. Funding would come from a 20-year, flat parcel tax of $120 annually, the equivalent of $10 a month. This is a solid investment.

Sure, these are bad times, but bad times sometimes present unique financial opportunities. In this case, I not only find the purpose compelling, I find the timing opportune. The flip side of bad times is the prospect of getting a lot more for a lot less.

Additionally, I like many of the particular features of this initiative. It provides for an independent watchdog committee. It expressly prohibits the use of eminent domain. And it earmarks 4% annually for fire safety and maintenance — an important first in this regard.

Some have asked me how I can support this knowing the burden it would impose on seniors with fixed incomes. Actually, an existing state program allows exemptions for qualifying seniors.

Others have asked me how I can support this knowing the range of fiscal and other challenges the city faces. Yes, the city does face big challenges: underfunded employee pensions, antiquated infrastructure, the loss of federal and state funds, the drop in sales and bed taxes owing to the weak economy and no easy consensus on how best to reform our downtown specific plan to make it more business-friendly.

However, this is not a situation where buying the open space prevents or impedes us from solving the city's problems. To the contrary, the funding of the open space purchase is from an entirely new and independent source and does not take away $1 that could be used to solve other issues.

Meanwhile, here's a chance that comes around only rarely these days in American politics. Voters can decide for themselves whether the proposed benefit of something is worth the cost. If more than two-thirds of us vote yes, then all of us will actually be able — literally — to see where our money goes!

Petitions are circulating in an effort to collect sufficient signatures to qualify the initiative for a vote. That vote could come late this year or early next year. I've signed the petition. I hope everyone who reads this will do the same. That way local voters will decide for themselves: Is it worth it? I say, "yes."

STEVE DICTEROW, formerly Laguna Beach mayor, served three terms on the City Council from 1994-2006.

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