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Effort underway to keep green, open space around Santa Clarita

The city's goal is to acquire and protect the unspoiled land and

February 12, 2009|Ann M. Simmons

Gazing out at the expanse of pristine, sun-kissed hills in Santa Clarita's Golden Valley Ranch, City Councilwoman Laurene Weste couldn't help but be moved.

"It's gorgeous . . . a majestic, natural creation, and it's untouched," Weste said one recent morning while visiting the haven of open space just two miles from the city center.

She spoke about the gift of greenery that would be bestowed on future generations. Then she pondered the question: "How do we get more?"

To that end, the city of Santa Clarita has launched a full-court press to acquire and protect the wealth of unspoiled lands and wildlife sanctuaries that surround the Los Angeles County suburb.

"The goal is to get open space all the way around the city," said Weste, who has championed the cause for more than three decades.

In 2007, Santa Clarita property owners helped put the city one step closer to that goal when they voted to create an Open Space Preservation District.

It will secure a greenbelt buffer around the city by saving lands from development while protecting rare biological and geological regions and establishing additional trails and parklands.

The district charges property owners an annual assessment that goes toward the purchase of land in and around the city. Currently at $26 per parcel, the fee can increase no more than a dollar each year for the next 30 years -- and only if approved by the City Council after a public hearing. Owners of larger nonresidential parcels pay more.

The fees currently earn the city about $1.2 million a year, officials said.

By adopting such a system for acquiring open space, Santa Clarita has joined an exclusive club of Southern California communities that have agreed to buy up wildlife areas for preservation.

"That's a very forward way of financing open space," said Dash Stolarz, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency dedicated to the preservation of wilderness and urban parklands.

Several municipalities have passed laws that curb development or ensure that land is used for parks and recreational facilities, Stolarz said.

But few cities have established a system that requires property owners to pay for creating a greenbelt, she said.

Property owners in the part of Los Angeles that includes the Santa Monica Mountains agreed to such a measure in 2002. It has so far resulted in the preservation and protection of almost 2,000 acres of open space, Stolarz said.

Santa Clarita has already acquired more than 3,200 acres, officials said.

The plan is for the greenbelt to stretch across the San Gabriel and Santa Susana mountains and create wildlife corridors in the Angeles National Forest.

In addition to buying land, Santa Clarita is partnering with public agencies such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to acquire property.

The city also hopes to persuade would-be developers to donate land in exchange for the opportunity to build housing tracts or commercial centers.

Such was the case with Golden Valley Ranch, a 1,200-acre swath of land where developers had planned to build hundreds of homes and a retail center.

After years of negotiations, the developers agreed to donate 900 acres, which will remain open space, said Rick Gould, Santa Clarita's director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

But not everyone is happy about the city's quest to buy land with taxpayer money.

"The homeowners of Santa Clarita will be paying the burden, but those living outside the city will have the benefit, at no cost to them," said resident Jim Farley, who organized grass-roots opposition to the open space measure.

"I'm already paying more than my fair share," said Farley, pointing out that his property taxes are $9,000 a year. "Now they're squeezing us for just that much more."

Opponents of the open space initiative also say the city is violating Proposition 218, a state provision that restricts the ability of local governments to increase property taxes by labeling them "assessments" or "fees." The law also bars local governments from imposing assessments on homes and businesses to pay for the cost of providing "a general benefit to the community."

Last July, the California Supreme Court struck down a special fee that Santa Clara County homeowners had been paying since 2001 for open space acquisition, saying it violated Proposition 218.

Gail Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita, said its preservation district had been "formed in full compliance" with the law.

She said property owners overwhelmingly approved the assessment after realizing the benefits.

The preservation district's rules state that no more than 10% of the purchased greenbelt lands could ever be developed as structured open space such as parks, sports fields or playgrounds.

Still, some residents are not convinced.

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