Not much controversy erupts in sleepy Fountain Valley, where the greatest landmark is a mile-square park that the city doesn't even own.
Oh sure, there was some publicity last year when the town's namesake at City Hall temporarily went on the fritz, leaving Fountain Valley without its fountain. But it is mostly peaceful in this bedroom community of 56,000, where people live in neat tract homes worth an average $170,000.
Founded only 31 years ago in the great wave of suburban cityhood that swept Southern California in the mid-1950s, Fountain Valley remains decidely low-key--a place where sales tax from grocery stores brings in the biggest chunk of money to city coffers.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that an election over a shopping center has triggered the biggest brouhaha in two decades--and may decide the financial future of the city on the edge of central Orange County.
On Tuesday, voters here will be asked to decide whether development of a 140-acre strawberry field--one of the few remaining open parcels of land in Fountain Valley--should be rezoned to allow a retail center.
Opponents of the project, known as Southpark, already have managed to scare away the Price Co., a San Diego-based discount store chain that was to anchor the development and flood Fountain Valley's bank accounts with at least $1.5 million in annual sales tax revenue.
Woody Young, a resident who lives near the field, argued that the project is unnecessary and would infuse neighborhood streets with so much traffic that it would be "like a football game going on over there all day, every day, every week."
But Fountain Valley officials say Proposition 13 has drastically cut the city's greatest source of income, property taxes, posing a dilemma that has plagued many other communities since the state property tax limit initiative was passed in 1978. City officials contend that if such city services as street improvements, sidewalk repairs, neighborhood maintenance programs and adequately staffed police and fire departments are to be maintained--much less grow with the community--an increase in sales tax, such as Southpark would bring, is essential. The existing zoning could net only one-tenth of that amount, they say.
Young and others who oppose the shopping center contend that the city's financial woes have been exaggerated. Calling themselves the Citizens for Maintaining the Quality of Life in Fountain Valley, the group launched a successful petition drive to force a referendum on the City Council's Sept. 2 approval of the project. Besides gridlock, they have expressed concerns about potential flooding.
In a city where homeowner associations pack considerable political clout and anti-traffic and slow-growth sentiment burns stronger than ever, Fountain Valley officials and other community boosters of Southpark, such as the Chamber of Commerce, are understandably worried about the outcome of Tuesday's vote.
"It's not one of your more dramatic elections as these things go," said Councilman James Neal, a retired Fountain Valley city manager who has been involved with the city's government for 16 years. Nevertheless, he said, Southpark is the most controversial issue to hit town since a 1968 recall drive.
"My fear is that there won't be enough of a turnout. The people who oppose this project feel very strongly, and nobody else maybe cares that much."
Added John Collins, chairman of Citizens for Fountain Valley, a group that is campaigning for Southpark: "I don't want to be faced in four years with either less city services or more taxes, and I frankly believe that will happen."
Southpark now amounts to a strawberry field bounded by Slater and Talbert avenues, Euclid Street and the Santa Ana River. The parcel falls within an existing redevelopment area in the southeast part of the city, zoned for light manufacturing and owned by the Sakioka family, a longtime Orange County farming clan
As approved by the City Council, the plan calls for development of a 30-acre retail shopping center, with the remaining 110 acres to be converted into a business park for research and development and light industrial uses. Buildings could reach no higher than 55 feet.
In order to accomplish this, the Fountain Valley City Council had to redesignate the property's land use to "planned community," effectively allowing for retail businesses and--most importantly--the Price Club.
"It was just a perfect deal," said Neal, a retiree who worked for 35 years as a city administrator.
The city-hired economic consultant, in his July analysis of the project, concluded that Southpark would, over the project's 21-year life, reap the city about $46 million in sales tax, plus an extra $5.5 million in developer-paid traffic fees.