Ruling that construction of three new freeways in southern and eastern Orange County is "obviously of statewide concern," the 4th District Court of Appeal on Tuesday rejected an Irvine citizen group's initiative seeking to block financing for the thoroughfares.
Siding with a broad coalition of land development and business organizations that challenged the initiative, the appellate court said the decision on whether to impose development fees to finance new freeways rests with the City Council and not with the voters themselves.
"Three large freeway corridors trisecting the state's second largest county, costing a billion or so dollars, and slated to become state or federal highways will obviously have a . . . great effect on transportation in this state . . .," too great to be subject to the review of voters within a single city, the court said.
To Consider an Appeal
Protesting that the initiative process is "one of the most fundamental principles of our democratic society," the nonprofit Center for Law and the Public Interest said it will consider an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The development fee program, a cooperative effort by 10 cities and the county Board of Supervisors, would raise 48% of the estimated $888 million needed to extend the San Joaquin Hills, Foothill and Eastern freeways through the rapidly developing foothills on either end of Orange County.
Irvine, located near the heart of all three thoroughfares and with a teeming development agenda over the next several decades, would generate about a fourth of all fees raised under the program--enough to make the city's participation crucial.
While the initiative, circulated by a citizen group called the Committee of Seven Thousand, would have required all financing measures for new roads and freeways to be submitted to the voters, the central issue in the freeway debate has been growth--and the perception that the new freeways will bring unwanted new development to south Orange County.
The Committee of Seven Thousand sees the developer fee as a means of circumventing Orange County voters' overwhelming rejection in 1984 of a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements, although supporters of the fee argue that the fees would have been imposed in any case as a way of making new development pay its fair share for freeway improvements.
The citizen group collected more than 10,000 signatures from Irvine residents seeking a vote on the road-financing initiative, but opponents of the measure claim that the allegedly misleading title of the initiative, "The Citizens-Right-to-Vote Ordinance," caused many residents in favor of the freeways to sign the petitions anyway.
Ruling on a suit filed against the initiative by the Building Industry Assn., the Industrial League of Orange County and the Irvine and Orange County chambers of commerce, a Superior Court judge in August said, as the appellate court did Tuesday, that financing of the freeways was an issue of statewide concern not subject to the local initiative process.
The Los Angeles-based Center for Law and the Public Interest took up the appeal for the citizens' committee, vowing it would "seek to vindicate one of the most fundamental principles in our democratic society--that because all power of government ultimately resides in the people, they retain the right to submit legislative questions to a direct vote of the electorate."
While the decision about whether to build the freeways may be an issue of statewide concern, the issue of whether to assess new development in Irvine to pay for them is a local issue, Fred Woocher, attorney for the center, contended Tuesday.
Committee of Seven Thousand president Bill Speros compared the issue to the 1984 countywide vote on Proposition A, the sales tax measure. "If the people had a right to vote on it 15 months ago, they have a right to vote on it now," he said. "The only thing that has changed is the method of financing."
Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, who co-drafted the initiative and who was the only councilman to oppose the developer fee program, said a Supreme Court appeal is likely. "All I can say is I'm hopeful that the highest court in the state will rectify what is, in my view, a fundamental injustice: mainly a denial of the right to vote on this matter (which) is secured by the state Constitution's provisions of initiative and referendum."
Spokesmen for the development and business groups, which have emphasized that construction of the new freeways is critical for Orange County's continued economic well-being, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In their unanimous decision, the appellate court justices said they were not inclined to "pass on the merits of the funding scheme or the projects it is intended to create." Many of the arguments raised both for and against the initiative "would obviously more appropriately be aired in campaign literature," the justices said.