THOUSAND OAKS — Voters this fall will decide the fate of two City Council-sponsored measures that could make it tougher and more expensive for developers to do business in this city.
One measure attempts to curtail growth while the other seeks to make developers pay more to help the city buy open space. Not surprisingly, the Building Industry Assn. has come out against both measures, calling one unnecessary and the other unfair.
Measure E, by far the more controversial of the two, has become one of the city's hottest political issues in this election season.
Authored by Mayor Andy Fox and supported by council members Mike Markey and Judy Lazar, Measure E would prevent any development that exceeds densities allowed by the city's General Plan from going forward without voter approval.
For example, if a section of Thousand Oaks were set aside for single-family homes in the General Plan, a developer wanting to build apartments there would need the support of a majority of voters.
In Thousand Oaks, developers and their advocates concede that such a warm embrace would be unlikely.
However, the biggest critics of Measure E--Planning Commissioner Linda Parks and Councilwoman Elois Zeanah--contend that developers should not worry about the measure because it would not be as restrictive as advertised.
They argue that it contains loopholes that would actually allow taller buildings, excessive strip mall development and other types of urban sprawl to overtake Thousand Oaks.
"Measure E doesn't safeguard but threatens to make Thousand Oaks an extension of the San Fernando Valley," Zeanah and former Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski wrote in the rebuttal argument to the measure. "It encourages developers to build sprawling residential tracts on the outskirts of our city where land is cheaper, and no voter approval is needed."
Parks, who is running for City Council, and her slow-growth cohorts also believe Measure E would end up costing Thousand Oaks lots of money to defend and would probably not hold up in court because similar ordinances have not withstood legal challenges.
Fox believes the only reason Zeanah and Parks oppose his measure is because they are loath to side with him and the council majority on any growth-related issue.
"There was a concern that we heard, a fear of overdevelopment, and Measure E will take care of that," Markey said. "I'm astounded that these people, who are so against development, are against it.
"If she [Zeanah] or Zukowski had put this forward, they would be 100% behind it," he added. "The fact that they are against this is one of the funniest things that's happened politically here in a long time."
Chuck Cohen, a former city councilman and a Thousand Oaks land-use attorney, is also against Measure E, albeit for different reasons.
Cohen--who has successfully shepherded some of the biggest development deals in Thousand Oaks--believes the measure is misguided. He argued that Thousand Oaks has allowed few such "up-zoning" decisions in its history, and that there is little undeveloped land within city boundaries that Measure E would affect.
Moreover, Measure E would come back to haunt the city once its older sections begin to deteriorate and need revitalizing, Cohen said. And he argued that a clause in the measure intended to provide an exception for public agencies, such as the Conejo Valley Unified School District, is murky and may not achieve its goal.
"It [Measure E] will have a chilling effect on redevelopment of some of the older areas in this city, which will soon need redevelopment," Cohen said. "And it could really have a chilling effect on public agencies. As it stands now, I'm not really sure if there is an exception for public agencies or not."
The other measure, Measure D, has hardly raised an eyebrow so far among Thousand Oaks' warring political factions. In fact, there isn't even an argument opposing the measure in the ballot pamphlet.
But developers are well-aware of Measure D--and they don't like it.
Supported unanimously by the City Council, Measure D would increase the existing Thousand Oaks "bedroom tax" on new residential construction and would require all revenue generated by the tax to be spent on the acquisition or improvement of parks and open space. It needs a two-thirds vote to pass.
Thousand Oaks has not raised the bedroom tax since it was adopted in 1972 and has one of the lowest such taxes in Southern California. Measure D would quadruple the tax, but supporters say the increase amounts to adjusting the tax for inflation since 1972.
For example, for each house of three or more bedrooms, developers would be taxed $800, four times the $200 they now pay.
"It's not millions of dollars, but it will help us pay the cost of maintaining and purchasing open space," Markey said. "We have so much open space, but we don't really have a financial mechanism to maintain it. If you buy a new house but don't have the money to keep it up, it's going to start looking run-down after awhile."
Cohen said the bedroom tax hike proposed by Measure D, while small overall, would contribute to rising housing prices, thereby hurting not only the building industry but the entire Ventura County economy.
He argued that it would also hurt the consumer, since added construction costs are often passed on to home buyers.
"There's always a concern when there is an additional cost on housing, because what we've seen is that consumers cannot always afford more costs," Cohen said. "Residential developers often end up eating those costs, or they have to raise prices, which lowers the number of people who can [afford] the homes."
Parks, who is running for office as an open-space advocate, disagrees.
"We have the most open space in the county, but developers have gotten away without paying their fair share," she said. "We should have adjusted this for inflation 10 years ago. It's definitely needed."