Open space case goes before California SC today

By Chris Amico | May 6, 2008

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association v. Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, a case that could shape how communities fund open space projects in the state.

In 2001, the Open Space Authority sought to raise money through a ballot measure to buy land that would be set aside for open space.

It created a special assessment district with identical boundaries to its own, meaning nearly all of Santa Clara County would be included. The measure called for a $20 per parcel increase in property taxes for those homes that were included.

The Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association and other anti-tax groups sued to prevent the assessment from going into effect. In their complaint, opponents of the measure said the Open Space Authority needed to specify what land it would purchase and how property owners footing the bill would benefit.

"Neither of those things were done here," said Harold Johnson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a brief in the case. "The government went out and basically assessed property owners for a benefit not clearly defined.

"You shouldn't collar a few fat cats to pay more than their fair share," he added.

The Pacific Legal Foundation argued in its brief that the special assessment was a way to circumvent Propositions 13 and 218, which require a two-thirds vote to raise property taxes.

Patrick Congdon, the Open Space Authority's general manager, said his agency did its due diligence, and that consultants and lawyers who crafted the assessment district followed the law closely.

"We believe that we have met the requirements that would define what a special benefit was," he said. "I know that the [Silicon Valley] Taxpayers [Association] see that benefit differently...but we do feel we've met our obligations for determining specific benefit."

Calling the measure "very open-ended and vague," Johnson said the case will likely determine the limits of what other communities can do in the future when trying to raise funds.

"I think that if the court were to allow this to go through, I wouldn't be surprised if you saw other governments try to do the same thing," Johnson said. "I could see this becoming popular up and down the state if the court were to let this slide through."

Congdon agreed at least on the significance of the case. If the Open Space Authority loses, he said, there might not be money available to protect urban greenbelts and agricultural land between cities, and there is no other agency suited to that task.

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