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San Jose Mercury News - Sunday, October 6, 2002

Open space battle to go to voters

By Chuck Carroll
Mercury News
Los Altos Hills voters will probably face two choices on a ballot next year about how best to protect more than 150 acres of town-owned property, much of it open land such as Byrne Preserve and Westwind Barn.

One plan is backed by at least three members of the city council, and a second by a citizens group.

In some ways the differences between the two plans are somewhat technical, but defenders say they're significant.

In other ways, the differences are fairly minor. The council-backed ballot measure would cover all 168 acres of town-owned land, while the citizens initiative would protect 157 acres.

To Mayor Bob Fenwick, the best feature of the plan the council voted 3-0 (with two absent) Thursday night to put on a future ballot, is simplicity. "I like ballot measures that you can explain in one or two sentences," he said.

The council-backed measure would let voters decide on any future sale or change in general plan land-use designation involving town land. The measure itself, if approved, would make no changes to land uses designated in the general plan, but simply pass an ordinance.

The citizens initiative, proposed by Los Altos Hills Open Space, would give voters the same veto power over the future sale of town-owned lands. But in addition, it would redesignate as open space, under the city's general plan, three sizable parcels now subject to low- or very-low density residential development: Rhus Ridge, Edith Park and Juan Prado Mesa Preserve.

To backers of the citizens initiative, their proposal is tighter because the general plan -- the city's development blueprint for all zoning decisions -- supersedes ordinances. They prefer their plan because it would lock in the properties as open space now.

But Fenwick and council members Toni Casey and Emily Cheng said they want to stay away from any general plan changes within the ballot measure, lest voters be confused.

The issue of town-owned open space heated up when then-Mayor Casey pushed for an inventory of town-owned land with the idea of sparking discussion on whether the land was being put to their "highest and best use" for the entire community. After the inventory was completed, a majority of council members and other influential people said the idea of selling the Westwind Barn property should at least be considered, as long as the barn and its activities could be moved next door to the Byrne Open Space Preserve. Some residents were appalled at the suggestion, and soon Los Altos Hills Open Space was born. The group began organizing an initiative that would tie the council's hands, if they can collect enough valid signatures to qualify it for a ballot next year.

In the wake of the uproar, most council members expressed support for giving voters a chance to veto any proposed sale of certain public property. After the council approved its own plan Thursday night, there was tepid applause from some of the backers of the proposal, while others remained skeptical and suspicious of the council's motives.

Jitze Couperus, for example, said he was willing to "eat crow" if the council had a sincere change of heart. But, in the end, he applauded, even though the council declined to adopt the group's plan -- a move that would have averted the need for a townwide vote.

But his wife, another leader of the open space group, remained skeptical.

"We are at a loss as to why the city council would suddenly decide at this time to float their own initiative -- unless it is a cynical ploy aimed at confusing the voters, or even causing a different initiative to be approved by the voters, enabling the council members' original agenda," she said.

Fenwick said on Friday he often senses that some people think he's always scheming against them. But he said the council had shown good faith by not calling a special election in 88 days, as it could have. He said the citizens group would have had problems collecting the signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the ballot in time.

"We could have beaten them to the ballot box by two months," Fenwick said. "But I wanted to give them an opportunity, if they wanted it, to get a vote on their plan."


Contact Chuck Carroll at ccarroll@sjmercury.com or (650) 688-7598

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