Thursday, October 13, 2005
S.C. to Rule on Assessment for Open Space Acquisition
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether the state Constitution, as amended by Proposition 218 in 1996, permits the imposition of a special assessment on property owners for the purpose of acquiring and preserving open space.
At their weekly conference in San Francisco, the justices unanimously voted to review a divided Sixth District Court of Appeal panelÝs decision rejecting a challenge by a divided panel rejected a challenge by a group of San Jose property owners and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to a $20 annual assessment narrowly approved in a mail-in vote of property owners in 2001.
The assessment was imposed by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, an entity created by the Legislature, on approximately 300,000 property owners within the cities of Campbell, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara and San Jose, as well as much of unincorporated Santa Clara County.
The authority has been collecting, but not spending, the proceeds of the new assessment pending the outcome of the present litigation.
Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, limits the authority of local governments to impose taxes and fees by, among other things, imposing certain election requirements.
The HJTA claims that the authority violated the act by, among other things, imposing an assessment for an impermissible purpose, misleading property owners with regard to the election process, and by failing to adhere to the requirements that an assessment confer a ýspecial benefitţ on each property and that the assessment be levied in proportion to the special benefits conferred.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge William Elfving rejected the challenge two years ago. The appeal drew the attention of a number of groups that filed amicus briefs, including The Trust for Public Land, the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the California State Association of Counties on behalf of the authority and the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the opponents.
The Sixth District ruled that the assessment was not a "special tax" requiring a two-thirds vote under Proposition 218. Justice Eugene Premo, writing for the court, said the benefits identified by the authority including enhanced access to recreation, environmental protection, new jobs and other enhanced economic activity, reduced public service costs, and enhancement of property valuesˇare special, rather than general, benefits under the traditional standard.
Dissenting Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian argued that the collection of monies from properties covering a wide swath of the county to fund the annual budget of an agency that has discretion to identify and purchase properties over time is inconsistent with the notion of an assessment.
The case is Silicon Valley Taxpayers Assn., Inc. v. Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company