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More voting, more taxes -- for open space, streetcars and water quality

November 06, 2012|By Robert Greene
  • Griffith Park and adjacent areas are covered by the proposed parcel tax before voters Tuesday as Measure HH.
Griffith Park and adjacent areas are covered by the proposed parcel tax… (Los Angeles Times )

As voters mark their ballots Tuesday on three statewide tax measures, it’s worth noting that there are many times and many ways to vote on taxes, and we’re about to see a bunch of them. In addition to Propositions 30, 38 and 39, and Measure J for Los Angeles County voters, some residents in or near the Santa Monica Mountains are finding that they live in a special district and could be subject to new parcel taxes to pay for parkland maintenance and acquisition.

But at least that one will be found at the polling place and on election day, where and when voters would expect to find such a measure. Afterward, though, some downtown residents of a specially drawn district will be asked to weigh in -- by mail only -- on a tax to support a downtown streetcar. Soon after that, every county property owner is likely to see a mail-only parcel tax for storm water cleanup. Then in March, Los Angeles city voters could find taxes on their regular city ballots. That might seem comparatively mundane, except for the fact that there could be as many as four of them.

Begin with Tuesday’s ballot and Measures HH and MM, parcel taxes that would be imposed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

All of which should make most voters say “HH? MM? Mountains Authority? Huh?”

Here’s the thing. There are two special districts -- actually they are community facilities districts, and watch out for that term because it generally is another way of saying “tax” -- that cover the west and east portions of the area that’s under the jurisdiction of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The conservancy itself can’t impose taxes, but the authority can, and it’s proposing two parcel taxes: $24 a year for 10 years on every taxable piece of property in one district that roughly covers the Hollywood Hills (see the map), and $19 a year on every parcel in another district, to the west, which takes in properties from the San Diego Freeway (the 405) west to Calabasas (see the map).

If you’re in the Hollywood Hills, you’re probably voting on HH. Get it? Hollywood Hills, HH? I’m not sure what MM stands for. Maybe it’s the “Monica Mountains” part of “Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.”

It’s a parcel tax, which means it doesn’t matter if your piece of property is 100 square feet or 100,000  square feet, or if it’s valued at $10,000 or $10 million. Your new annual parcel tax would be the same -- $24 in the east district, $19 in the west. The money would go toward maintaining parkland and open space and acquiring new parcels in the mountains. See the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. briefing paper here.

Now wait. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy protects parkland for everyone, and everyone has access to it -- or rather, everyone should. In fact, all Los Angeles County property owners have been paying for mountain parklands since 1992 under a property assessment adopted by voters as Proposition A, plus a follow-up assessment in 1996 popularly known as "Baby A." And isn’t that the way it should be? We all pay. We all own. We all use hiking trails, picnic grounds, wild lands, fresh air.

But the Proposition A assessment is about to expire, and instead of seeking to renew it with a countywide vote, the authority has proposed these new parcel taxes to apply just to the folks who own property in the two districts. That’s great. Right? The rest of us won’t have to pay for acquisitions of new parklands or maintenance of old ones in those areas. Just the rich-ish folks who own land there.

But it troubles me. Property owners who pay taxes in those areas benefit from preserving open space, because a house with oak trees rather than power poles or an apartment complex in the adjacent lot is bound to be worth more due to the more wild, rural feel. But if only they are paying, won’t they get a little possessive of all that open space that is supposed to belong to all of us? If wealthy beachfront residents in Malibu keep putting up fences and gates to keep the public away from public shorelines, and they aren’t even paying a parcel tax to maintain that sand, how jealous will mountain homeowners be of newly acquired parklands now paid for with their taxes and no longer by all of the rest of us? Is this the quasi-privatization of public land, or are the landowners in the Santa Monica Mountains picking up a burden for the benefit of all of us? Will we see “Keep Out” signs on hiking trails and pristine meadows?

Thorny questions, especially if this is part of a trend toward voluntary self-taxation for open space.

Who gave authority to the authority anyway?

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