An initiative proposed ostensibly to protect Los Altos parks and open space has left some residents wondering about hidden motivations. Meanwhile, the Los Altos City Council may consider a competing referendum later this month.
At issue is the Los Altos Protect Our Parks and Public Lands Initiative, launched last month. Los Altos resident Jim Jolly, who is leading the effort, said proponents have collected more than 2,900 signatures. They needed 1,943 signatures – 10 percent of registered voters – to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot.
Supporters announced Sunday that the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters has certified the signatures.
The initiative – which needs a simple majority to pass – would amend the city’s general plan to require voter approval for “significant changes” to city-owned property, including the sale or lease of such properties or rezoning to a different land use. It would exempt parcels smaller than 7,500 square feet.
“Looking around us, at Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City, there’s intense pressure to develop land,” Jolly said of the initiative’s rationale. “Other cities have had their councils sell off their parkland. Once that land is gone, it’s gone.”
Residents get the final say, Jolly added, pointing voters to the initiative’s website, proparkslosaltos.org, for further information.
“It’s the democratic thing to do,” he said.
The city of Los Altos has not sold off any park space. In fact, the city purchased Lincoln Park from Santa Clara County in 2016. City officials did, however, sell a .78-acre property at the corner of First and Main streets in 2010, which was used for private development.
Protectionism and skepticism
Skeptics of the proposal suggest that proponents are after more than preserving parkland and open space – they want to tie up potential leasing agreements that could lead to useful development of city-owned properties.
Supporters of boosting downtown vibrancy fear the initiative also could throw a wrench in the city’s Downtown Vision plan, which includes using the parking plazas to build workforce housing aboveground and parking underground.
“I didn’t sign the petition, because my skepticism meter went red immediately,” said Los Altos resident Larry Lang. “A petition to prevent the city council from selling the parks? That’s not an actual problem, so what’s going on here?”
Jolly is on the record as opposing the city’s proposed public-private partnership last year with Los Altos Community Investments to build an office building and park on First Street. He has written to the city objecting to raising height limits on downtown structures and residential units.
Proponents of the parks initiative also have been vocal in their opposition to a new long-term lease and the city’s inclusion of the Children’s Corner preschool in the Hillview Community Center overhaul.
Roberta Phillips, who opposes the preschool’s inclusion at Hillview, said the parks initiative would have no impact on the still-pending lease agreement.
“The initiative is not retroactive and would not impact any existing agreements,” supporters said in a May 13 press release. “Public spaces at the history museum, library and Neutra House, as well as the Bus Barn Theater, would not be affected.”
A competing referendum
Los Altos Mayor Jean Mordo said an effort is underway to place a competing parks referendum on the November ballot, which would involve convincing council members to pursue a dueling course of action.
“Most people who signed (the initial petition) have been told that it would ‘protect our parks,’ which it would do,” Mordo said. “But it would do much more, preventing the creative use of all our land, park or not. It would restrict all leases over 180 days, which would be unmanageable since we have a multitude of leases, including our fire stations (leased to the fire department), the (Los Altos Stage Company) theater, the (Los Altos History) museum and many others.”
According to city officials, approximately 25 people have asked to have their petition signatures withdrawn after learning of the potential restrictions posed by the Protect Our Parks initiative.
According to Mordo, a “real Protect Our Parks referendum would more narrowly prevent the sale or repurposing of park lands, without undue restrictions on, for example, repurposing one of our parking plazas for teacher and employee housing.”
“It’s really too complicated to defeat,” said Gary Anderson, a Los Altos resident skeptical of the initiative. “(It’s) much more likely to beat a complicated proposal with a simple proposal. The idea Mordo has prevents any future council from selling parks, but doesn’t encumber management of other public lands.”
Mordo said the city council could discuss the alternative referendum as soon as the council’s next meeting, scheduled Tuesday.
The parks initiative could cost the city approximately $50,000 to put on the ballot, according to an unofficial estimate from the Registrar of Voters.