Signal: You're here to talk about the Open Space Initiative. Ballots go out when?
Weste: May 25.
Signal: And they go to whom?
Weste: The ballots are going to every property owner in the city of Santa Clarita.
Signal: They'll be asked to vote on what?
Weste: They're going to be asked to vote on a very important, critical issue of our future: Do you want to preserve land in and around our city, or do you want to have more development? It's really that simple.
Signal: If it were that simple, we probably know what the answer would be, but there's a "but." They have to pay for it.
Weste: There's always a "but" when you want something of quality. Yes, we're going to ask homeowners if they are willing to spend $2.08 a month, if you're a homeowner of a regular residential unit. If you're a condominium owner, it's just a little bit less, $1.56. For a (single-family) homeowner that's about $25 a year or, as I love to say, two movie tickets and a very small popcorn.
For that, we get to purchase land as a greenbelt in perpetuity, forever, for our future, around our city. And that is the most important resource I can think of for our future.
Signal: Does that $25 per year go on forever?
Weste: No. We had an initiative that we sent out (two years ago), and people said no. I think they were correct in saying that because it did go on forever.
This one terminates in 30 years, which is what we need to do. We have had a very large committee for seven months, talking to community members to see what they really want. And what they really want is something that is simple, does the job of preserving Santa Clarita, the hills we love, the river we love, open spaces to hike and camp and natural parklands, to enjoy the scenic views forever and keep our property values high. They wanted something that was very reasonable to afford, and $25 a year for 30 years will do that.
Signal: Is it $25 per year for 30 years or does it go up in that time?
Weste: It can go up $1 a year. It cannot go up more than $1 a year.
Signal: So 30 years from now it could be $55.
Signal: It will still be a couple gallons of gas. When was that last open space initiative the one that didn't pass?
Gould: That last initiative was in the summer and early fall of 2005. The initiative, technically, was fundamentally different than the one that's being proposed by the council today.
Signal: What are those differences?
Gould: Well, Council Member Weste has already described one difference to you, and that is that there is a cap on the (number of) year(s).
One of the other things that the committee proposed to the council, and the council is now proposing to the property owners, is that the money that would be accrued from the district would be only used for the purchase of parkland. In the previous initiative, there was an attempt to provide some recreational amenities, perhaps build some parks, but I believe that the community group that got together and is now advocating for this really said, "Look, we need to get the land." They're saying that they have many reasons for doing that, and the council agreed with that. So this measure is focused very much on land acquisition, and primarily on undeveloped land, to keep it from being developed in the future by whoever might own that land.
Signal: So the money that is raised from this, if it passes, can only be spent on raw land?
Gould: That's correct.
Signal: It sounds like the purpose is to block development that might otherwise occur on the land.
Weste: Well, I think that realistically, when we've looked at communities in our state and other states that have created greenbelts throughout and around their communities, their property values have been up 18 to 20 percent more valuable, because they had a predictable future.
All land that is owned by someone, all land that is privately held, that is not in a governmental agency, can be developed. One of the things I've heard the most over many decades from people is, "I thought that mountain would be there forever; I thought I would always have that resource."
I prefer to not have children have to go to a museum to see dirt.
Signal: All five members of the City Council support this open space measure, right?
Signal: So they support the goal of buying up land so it won't be developed, and creating this greenbelt around the city, right?
Weste: We all voted to support creating a greenbelt. It has been a goal of the city since we became a city.
We have jurisdiction over the land within the city boundaries; we don't have jurisdiction around it. It is a benefit to the valley to have land preserved. There isn't going to be more land, and there is not going to be another opportunity later, if most of it is already put into some kind of development process. So it's an opportunity for us within a (radius of) three miles around the city, to have a work plan that would allow us to purchase land.
One of the critical issues right now is that people realize the impact on their health, their impact on traffic, the impact on their property values, even the impact on crime. We already have 100,000 approved development units in the county, around the city, and (with an average of) 2.5 people per unit, we're almost 250,000 people in the valley now. There are going to be another 250,000 people in the valley, that's a given. Those development units are approved.
I think it's fair to say that every time we take some acreage, we put it into permanent open space and we interconnect that, we have guaranteed the kind of quality and lifestyle that we already have come to value, and potentially the other people who move here are going to want the same thing.
Signal: OK, if the City Council supports this idea of creating a greenbelt, and you think the people of Santa Clarita support the idea of not wanting any more development and wanting to preserve those hillsides, why should the people who live here have to pay for buying land? Why doesn't the City Council just say, "no more development" or if it's outside the city, go to Supervisor Mike Antonovich and say, "The people of Santa Clarita don't want any more development, so just stop everything."
Weste: That is a really fair question. But people have a right to develop their land. You can't say "no more development" to people who have property rights, whether you're in the city or the county.
The city has a very strong, "smart growth" type of planning where we require amenities in open space and parks. But we have very limited land within the city boundary, and in order to comply with state law and be fair and equitable, which is what we're required to do if you don't want something to be developed, you have to buy it. It's really that simple.
Signal: How much money will the city have at its disposal to buy raw land?
Gould: The assessment district would generate about $1.5 million a year. And we can use that money to generate more money. There are a variety of different ways that, as a staff, should the district pass and the people support it, we would pursue that.
Signal: Is it sort of like a school bond, where if you raise money locally, there is money at the state that becomes available?
Gould: Absolutely. In November 2006, the voters approved both Propositions 1C and Proposition 84; both were packaged as part of the infrastructure bonds that Gov. Schwarzenegger was pushing. In both of those particular propositions were moneys identified for watershed protection, for land acquisition and for parks.
Typically, those types of moneys require some type of grant match. So, ideally, we would use the money generated out of the assessment district as a grant match to basically make the money go farther. Should the district pass, that would be one of the goals of the staff.
Signal: So the $1.5 million (per year) that comes from the local people would turn into how much?
Weste: It would turn into about $34.5 million that we would generate from the city.
Signal: Over the life of the thing.
Weste: Right. But that can translate, (with) the matches of the state money that's presently there for water conservation and park land, to maybe $90 million. So it's a huge return back to the residents in amenities, to have that match. There's no other way to have that match without a pool of money being put together.
Signal: How many acres would $1.5 million buy?
Gould: That's really hard to describe, but I can tell you that we aggressively go out and work with property owners. In most cases, we prefer to get land from developers as part of a development agreement, but because most of the development is currently occurring in the county, that's obviously much harder for us to do. We really can't get that done. So, what we do as a staff when we're buying land is, we do an appraisal of the land and try to buy the land for the fair market value of the land and work with the willing seller to do that. It varies, depending on where you are in the city ,and also varies depending on the topography. So it really is a challenge. It's a jigsaw puzzle, putting it all together and creating that perimeter, which we're working on today.
Signal: If you take this money and start buying land, what guarantee is there that some future city council won't come along and sell it or develop it?
Weste: The first thing is that this is being done under Proposition 218 guidelines, so, it has a district boundary, which is that circle around the city, and that is an engineering document. Anything that is bought within that under Proposition 218, in order for a future city council at any time to do anything to that land, they would have to go back through the same process and go to a vote to the people. And I don't think land is going to become less valuable park land and natural park land. To our citizens, it's going to become more important. So, I firmly believe that that land is there forever because we're not going to vote, as a people, to take away our park land.
Signal: One of the concerns that has come up in letters to the editor is that the proponents aren't saying exactly what land will be purchased. Can you address that?
Weste: Absolutely. The engineering document shows that radius of three miles around, and we would have a work plan similar to what some other park agencies have, like the Nature Conservancy or Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and our properties would be in that work plan. If (the properties) become available for sale, then they would be purchased.
We don't know which ones would be for sale. This is not about taking property; this is about people wanting to sell it.
Signal: Shouldn't the people be able to know exactly what piece of land they're buying?
Weste: They will know. They'll all be listed in that work plan in that area around the city. It will all be listed. It's very public.
And the good news is, we also will be forming, very shortly, a five-member public panel not elected officials, but just citizens who will be the audit panel, who will review and have oversight and every year, go through what's been purchased and (what has been) spent, to make sure that the public is taken care of, and the direction and intent is done.
Signal: Are you forming the oversight committee before or after the vote?
Weste: (Last) week (we had) an item on the City Council (agenda) to start the process to put that in place.
Signal: Will people know who's on it before they vote on the measure?
Weste: Well we can't get done that quickly, but they'll know that there will be five-citizen panel to do oversight.
Signal: Why is this ballot going only to property owners and not to everyone?
Gould: There's a variety of different methods government can use to finance a variety of different projects. In this particular case, because the land is outside the city, and under Proposition 218, there actually is a benefit derived by the property owners in the city by purchasing this land outside and some of the benefits are described by the advocacy group, such as raising property values this method of assessment is very similar to what we do throughout the city of Santa Clarita today.
The landscape maintenance districts that we have for example, when you're driving down McBean Parkway or Valencia Boulevard, all the medians are maintained through landscape maintenance districts, where the properties that are adjacent to those medians and those beautification areas actually derive the property value from having those medians there. They directly pay for that, so somebody on the northern end of the city is not necessarily paying for a landscape maintenance district in the southern end of the city.
It's a similar method of assessment, and the argument is that citywide, there is benefit by buying this land and creating the greenbelt around the city. So the assessment district under (Proposition) 218 seems to make the most sense for what the City Council is trying to achieve.
Signal: And there would be a pass-through; renters will end up paying, too, in the form of higher rent.
Weste: An apartment would be (assessed) the same as a condominium, $1.56 cents a month.
Signal: So it's $25 for a single-family home, regardless of how big the house is?
Signal: What's the dollar amount for a condo or apartment?
Weste: I believe it's $18.75 (per year).
Signal: So it doesn't go out to everybody because it's not a general tax, it's more like a parcel tax?
Gould: I'm not the financial guy behind this, but it is an assessment on the piece of property because the property benefits.
Signal: The idea being that the value of your property value goes up if it's near parkland? Are there some kind of studies that show that neighboring parkland increases property values?
Weste: (Yes.) We actually have looked at that, and of course in our community, I mean, we're one of the top 100 communities to live in, in America, for children, because we have the parks and the recreation programs we have, and we're considered one of the best in the state of California and 18th in the nation (in safety). That's directly related to our quality of life, and our quality of life is directly related to those kind of amenities, of natural lands and parks and trails and the benefit of just having a higher quality of life.
But the communities that we've looked at that have done this, their property values have been higher, and have gone higher because of that sustainability of quality living, and they know what their area is going to look like, they know they're going to have the land and the parks, and they know what their viewshed is. They know they'll have cleaner air and a little less traffic, and they know what they're going to look like in the long term.
Signal: Tell us a bit about the thinking that went into the idea that all this money should go to raw land and not for building park infrastructure.
Weste: Well, we as a city didn't make that decision; the committee on which I serve with about 35 to 40 people of very strongly opinionated, great, diverse members of the community, a lot of leadership there they went out and they talked to people. And we did research. We asked people what they wanted. Their greatest concern was that they love Santa Clarita, but they wanted to make sure, while there's some good development, that they also had a balance of land with development that was coming in the future. That was the greatest concern to them, was land.
Signal: Who is the driving force behind this? Is it the city or is it some independent group?
Weste: It's the committee, the Santa Clarita Valley Save Open Space Committee. SOS, Save Open Space.
Signal: They're the ones who are actually doing
Weste: They're doing the advocacy.
Signal: Who's paying for all the advertising and mailers?
Weste: We have to raise the money, and everybody's putting in their dollars and going out and asking their neighbors, too, and my friends, if I have any left. We're all asking everybody to chip in to do the advocacy and pay for printing, and we're walking neighborhoods and we're putting out every effort we can as a grassroots organization to do this.
Signal: The city has bought raw land already, without having to go to the taxpayers for a special assessment. How did that work?
Weste: That doesn't happen very often, and certainly over 20 years I was there since city formation we've acquired just a little over 3,000 acres over 20 years, and that's not near enough to finish (the greenbelt).
Signal: Three thousand acres sounds like a lot.
Weste: It does sound like a lot, but let me give you an example. Whitney Canyon, which is at the south end of San Fernando Road, and it sort of backs into that canyon that's 400 acres. There would have been more than 900 homes there, that (area) was approved for it. But working with Sen. George Runner some years back, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, we were able to take a few dollars from the city and do a match, which Rick can talk about.
It's one of the best examples of a great success story. It was going to be development. It was not exactly the right thing for that area, and we were able to purchase it, which is part of that greenbelt that goes around the city. Because we need to have that corridor open. (It) backs into the Nature Center.
Gould: I would say our open space efforts are multifaceted. We don't pursue any one particular thing, and in fact I'd say we don't use tax dollars, as a general rule, to buy open space. Our preference is to get it as part of the deal with the development community, or condition that is part of the development, or use state grant funds that are identified for that type of purchase.
We've used state grant funds for purchases of portions of the Santa Clara River; we've used state bond money to buy portions of the greenbelt that are already now being held in perpetuity. So it's a multifaceted approach.
There was a development not too long ago that was approved in the city where the actual development itself was about 690 acres, but the city was able to get 710 acres of open space as part of the development. So, oftentimes it's negotiations with developers, but it's also state grant money, as well, that is identified specifically for those types of purchases. We're constantly looking at opportunities.
Weste: The issue is that when we've been able to do that, it's been generally because it's in the city. The majority of what we need to deal with is not within the city. We don't have 20 more years to deal with it. Generally everything that comes into the city is being annexed from the county, it's already developed, and wonderful neighborhoods. But to have that amenity and have that resource, we have to be a lot more proactive. We can't take away from our police department, we can't take away from existing parks and recreation programs or from senior issues at the Senior Center. There are no extra moneys. There are roads to be built, there's maintenance to be done, there are quality-of-life issues that have to be taken care of, just to sustain a city. So there aren't the extra funds.
Signal: Are those opportunities going away? Is the state saying it won't contribute unless you also raise money locally?
Gould: I think Council Member Weste is correct. In the city, we're taking every opportunity we can, but our borders are limited. There is more state money out there, but it's difficult. I can't condition something going on in the county
Weste: I think the bottom line with that is that we have no jurisdiction outside the city boundaries. So if you want to go impact that, you have to have a work program, you have to have this pot of money that you can go get matched funds, and you have to have that work program where you actually actively buy land, because you have no impact once the process is started and is going in development.
I'm not saying that there aren't some great planned projects in development out there; I'm just saying in Santa Clarita, this community wants to have preservation of greenbelts and open space and have places for their kids and wildlife corridors and places to go camp and hike and play and really enjoy themselves. We have to actively purchase that if it's not inside the city's boundaries.
Signal: Some people have asked why it's only city residents who have to pay, and not the people who live in the unincorporated county and don't the unincorporated residents derive even greater benefit than city residents, since they live right next door to the property you want to buy?
Gould: I'm going to let Laurene answer the majority of this question, because I can educate, but I really can't say whether it's good or bad.
Signal: As a city staff person, you can't advocate for the initiative; you can only answer questions about it.
Gould: That's correct. And under Proposition 218, we can buy land because a special benefit is derived to the property owners within the city. I have heard similar comments about there are people outside the city, and the city's 185,000 people, and there are probably 20,000 to 50,000 people, depending on the border that you draw around us, who could also derive a benefit. But I think Council Member Weste can better speak to that.
Signal: Laurene, you can say whatever you want
Weste: I can. I'm the advocate. The committee has looked at that, as we went through months of debate and some of it very heated about how to simplify it. I figured out, it's very easy to make something complicated and very hard to make something simple.
The simple truth is, the more land that we purchase around the city, the more benefit we have as a city. And I realistically have watched 28 annexations. The people who are out there in the county, they keep annexing into the city, so ultimately, they are us, and it's one valley. I don't know how to say this any other way: I've looked at the Santa Clarita Valley since it was less than 20,000 people; we are one valley. We need to do this because we can benefit ourselves as a city.
I'm not going to (deny myself) a shade tree just because my neighbor might get some of the shade, because if you don't preserve that, we won't have the benefit. It just won't be there.
Signal: With the previous open space initiative, we heard advocates point to Dan Palmer's proposal to wedge 5,500 multifamily units into the 5-14 corridor below Calgrove
Weste: Are you talking about where the 5-14 meet, the Las Lomas project?
Signal: Las Lomas, right. We're not hearing about that as an example of the sort of thing you want to stop this time. Why not?
Weste: That project is still moving ahead at the pace that they can. We are concerned about it, very much. I wish that land had been purchased 20 years ago. Nobody thought anything could be done with it. I think that is the type of scenario that the public has to look at and say, "Do I want to make a difference?" (And) there are other things like that out there
Signal: Is it still possible to purchase that specific property?
Weste: I think that if it were for sale, we would buy it, if we had passed this.
Signal: Are there other examples of specific development projects out there that you want to block?
Weste: Everything in Santa Clarita will be developed if it is not in public holding.
Signal: What is in public holding right now?
Weste: We have over 3,000 acres in public holding of open space.
Signal: Where is that?
Weste: Well, there's Whitney Canyon
Signal: At the mouth of San Fernando Road and Highway 14.
Weste: Right, and of course there's the county's Placerita Nature Center, (and) we have 960-some acres in Golden Valley Ranch, which is across from the Placerita Nature Center
Signal: So you've already got land east of Highway 14
Weste: Right. We have a couple hundred acres at the eastern edge of Placerita near the 14. We have a great portion of the Santa Clara River in public ownership; some of them are beautiful properties near (Interstate) 5 where you see the streams running and the old historic drawbridge. We have about 700 acres of that. A lot of the South Fork (of the Santa Clara River). We also have about 1,000 acres with the Wagner-Cemex property on the east side.
Gould: The other thing, there's considerable public holding on the west side of the freeway. (Almost) all the way from the 5 to the Ventura County line is held by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which a lot of this benefit assessment district is modeled on, by the way. But you have the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park, you have the Antonovich Open Space, and most recently, in the last year, about 6,000 acres of the Newhall Ranch High Country have come into public ownership, as well. So the west side of the valley is largely protected.
There are still some properties in there that could be acquired as part of public open space. If you combined all the public agencies' holdings in the valley, I'm not sure what the number would be
Weste: I think it's close to 14,000 acres.
Signal: OK, so there is a lot of land east of Highway 14 that's already in public ownership, and a lot of land west of I-5 that's in public ownership; so what land is left that you want to buy?
Weste: Oh, there is a lot left...
Signal: San Francisquito Canyon, that sort of thing?
Weste: There is some up San Francisquito; there's a lot up in the Bouquet area, there's still a lot on the east side, there's some on the west side. The area that you talked about, the Santa Clarita Woodlands, literally part of that is from the Santa Clara River all the way south to O'Melveney Park and we worked on that with Sen. Ed Davis back in 1989, because that is Significant Ecological Area 20, very pristine land, and it came under the Conservancy and that land was purchased. So yes, there are swaths and pieces, but you need to finish the greenbelting, and we need property in and through and around the city in order to maintain what we know today the lifestyle and the quality that we all enjoy. We need to do that.
Signal: Are there still parts of the Santa Clara River within the city that aren't publicly owned?
Weste: There's a little bit, but a lot of that we deal with.
Signal: Is that the sort of thing you can buy?
Weste: We can.
Signal: What happens next?
Weste: Well, we've sent these (mailers) out to the public, this information, there are fast facts on the back. You should have received this in the mail already; this is before your ballot comes on May 25. Please read it. If you have any questions, I want you to call us. There is a phone number on it. I'm also doing advocacy. I'm out there.
Signal: You're doing advocacy? Go figure.
Weste: I believe in this. I think this is one of the most important decisions, and this little pamphlet says "You choose." We really need to make a decision. What do we want to look like over the next 30 to 50 years? So the sales pitch is really simple: It's our decision. If we want to preserve and retain a very significant and special Santa Clarita, this is our opportunity to do it, and it's $25 a year.
Signal: If you want it, you've got to buy it.
Weste: You've got to buy it.
See this interview today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. "Newsmaker of the Week" can also be seen 24/7 on the Internet at scvtv.com.