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ORANGE COUNTY | ORANGE COUNTY ELECTIONS

Ballot Measures Give Voters a Say Over Development, Taxes, Schools

Election: The hottest of 31 issues, a Home Depot and upscale housing, are in San Juan Capistrano. An Irvine tax could be repealed.

October 09, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Buena Park, voters are being asked to kick in for a new police station. In Fullerton, residents are deciding whether they want their city clerk to be elected or appointed. In Irvine, voters are considering whether to repeal a business utility tax.

But those measures, and the assortment of others to be decided in the Nov. 5 election--31 city, county and school measures will appear on various ballots--seem mundane compared with the heat generated in San Juan Capistrano over two long-running development issues.

The first measure lets voters decide whether they want an upscale housing development and an accompanying high school built in the foothills on the east side of town. In the second, voters would advise the city whether to sell 13 acres of undeveloped land to the Home Depot Corp., a deal that would net the city $9 million.

"Both measures are really asking people what kind of city do they want San Juan to be," Assistant City Manager Julia Silva said.

The last time San Juan Capistrano residents were asked to determine what the town should look like was in 1990, when voters trooped to the polls in huge numbers and surprised political experts: They agreed by a 71% majority to tax themselves to buy farmland to help preserve the city's rural flavor.

Jeffrey Adler, a Long Beach-based political consultant working for a group that supported selling some of the town's raw land to Home Depot, said he believes San Juan's voters could show up in large numbers again.

"Our polls show there is a large awareness of the issue, but I don't know if that's enough to drive turnout in a year where voters are turned off by the governor's race and the assembly and senate races."

Both San Juan Capistrano measures ask similar questions: Do we protect our small-town charm and our unique way of life, or do we want more development and a bigger tax base?

To some, like Councilman David M. Swerdlin, the measures don't necessarily pit developers against preservationists.

Swerdlin supports Whispering Hills, a 175-home upscale housing tract, and San Juan Hills, which would be the city's first public high school in more than 40 years. But he is opposed to Home Depot, which the council placed on the ballot as an advisory vote.

"With Home Depot, I made the decision that a small-town lifestyle is a higher priority than a high tax base. That's what distinguishes this town from other communities," Swerdlin said. "I think Whispering Hills strengthens our community and prepares us for the future. The district's high schools are vastly overcrowded now. And our history favors a good education."

In Buena Park, the police station debate is attracting far less attention. Voters are being asked to help pay for construction of a 50,000-square-foot police headquarters through a tax that would cost roughly $19 a year for a single-family parcel through 2033. The measure must be approved by two-thirds of the voters. The city's existing police station was built in 1962, and city officials say it is cramped and outdated.

In Irvine, City Council candidate Linda Lee Grau gathered enough signatures to force a vote that would repeal a 15-year-old business utility tax that generates $3.7 million for a variety of city services. "It's a big bite for us if it doesn't pass," Irvine City Clerk Jeri Stately said.

Those who want to end the tax, which is capped at $5,000 a year for each business, say it hits small companies too hard and that the city is obsessed with retaining its image as a well-groomed city.

In Fullerton, voters will be deciding whether voters or the City Council should select the city clerk. The clerk is now elected.

The election was prompted by the retirement of longtime City Clerk Audrey Culver. Council members said that when they tried to find someone to complete Culver's unfinished term, they were unable to find a qualified candidate who lived in the city and was registered to vote.

Sylvia Palmer, a city spokeswoman, said the council decided it would rather conduct a detailed search for someone with professional experience, a hunt that might take them outside the city limits. The idea of taking that decision out of the voters' hands, however, is meeting resistance.

In Garden Grove, voters are considering whether to raise the city's hotel bed tax to 13% from 10%. Community leaders who favor the measure say the additional revenue would provide badly needed funds for police, fire and other city services. Opponents argue that the bed tax for nonresidents has already been raised twice and that the 10% tax is already higher than in most neighboring cities.

Other cities are considering a host of housecleaning initiatives, including restricting RV parking in residential neighborhoods in Fountain Valley, updating city charters in Cypress, Placentia and Seal Beach, and reauthorizing utility taxes in Los Alamitos.

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Advise and Consent

There are 31 city, school or county measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, including parking restrictions, development and special taxes. A sampling:

Buena Park (I) -- Proposes a special tax to help fund new police headquarters.

Fountain Valley (L) -- Would limit parking of RVs to certain residential areas.

Fullerton (M) -- Would give city the authority to appoint city clerk.

Garden Grove (M) -- Would raise the hotel tax from 10% to 13%.

San Juan Capistrano (CC) -- Would approve an upscale development and high school.

San Juan Capistrano (DD) -- Advisory vote on selling city land to Home Depot for

$9 million.

Irvine (GG) -- Would repeal business utility tax.

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