It’s election time and the ballot contest in Rancho Santa Margarita may be far more interesting than the state and national campaigns. This active, safe, and very friendly community has taken to a war of words that threatens to disrupt the powers that be, and issue in new leadership. Or not!
California cities have very little control over their income. Generally speaking they receive the bulk of their funding from the state as a share of tax revenues. Cities cannot add taxes without the consent of their voters, so they must learn to live with what they have. From these funds they must pay for services ( fire, police, maintenance and more ), and maintain the properties owned by the public. RSM leaders, for their 14 year history, have done a good job of staying within the budget and setting aside reserves for the downtimes.
Sales tax is a major income resource for the city. Consequently, it is in it’s best interest to attract popular retail businesses to the community where people will patronize them steadily, and city revenues can be enhanced. Big ticket stores are particularly popular because higher cost purchases bring in more tax dollars.
With this in mind, the original developers set aside some land at the entrance of the city to put in 10 small automotive dealerships. Vehicle sales generate the most tax revenue for a community and so this was a great idea. Unfortunately, RSM presents some significant issues, and thus new car manufacturer representatives had little interest in pursuing the area because it did not fit the requirements for drawing in buyers from a wider area. The top priority would be a location off a major freeway, which in RSM’s case is many miles away. Toll Roads don’t count. Also, the lots were too small. Six of them were purchased in total by 3 dealerships. Only 2 of them survived.
The original zoning, provided in the master plan for the development, and later for the city after incorporation, was for Commercial uses with an automotive overlay. Under this status the three dealerships were built, and two of them have been very successful. The third failed, and the property has been underutilized ever since. Each of these dealerships took two of the planned lots, and the remaining ones were permitted for an office park. After the failure of the one dealership, the city leaders were concerned that other uses for the property might not yield the desired tax income. In October, 2010, they changed the zoning on the three properties from general commercial to automotive only. That status assumes a new car dealership can be found to occupy the property, and bring in more tax dollars.
The failed dealership property has now been purchased by a developer who doesn’t believe a new car manufacturer can be found to occupy the current structure and lots. His initial research has not been successful in attracting any serious interest. One other dealer in the city is under new ownership and would like to relocate to that location, but this deal would be revenue neutral to the city, and might even be costly because it would require some incentives to make the financial package work. Other interest has been expressed but it is solely speculative, and no one has offered a binding contract to acquire the property. The developer went to the city and asked them to reverse the zoning change from late 2010 ( which deviated from the original master plan ), and allow for the development of other retail businesses that would bring immediate revenue to the city. The city staff followed the regulations established by the city council, and recommended denying the requests. The planning commission and city council also rejected the proposal because it did not conform to their new zoning.
Now the voters of Rancho Santa Margarita have been asked to vote on reverting the zoning to its former status. At the same time, a majority of the city council is up for election. The candidates have formed two competing slates, plus one independent voice, attached to Measure Z. The slate of candidates with long term involvement in RSM city government is asking the voters to say NO to the rezoning. They have taken the position voters should trust their elected leaders, accept their decisions, and retain them. The candidates who are challenging them encourage voters to say YES on Measure Z. They are also expressing a need for change in the leadership of the city.
Thus, we arrive at the central issue of this campaign. Do you have confidence in the leadership of Rancho Santa Margarita ? If you do, then you will likely vote against Measure Z and for the slate favoring it’s rejection. If you have lost confidence in our city leadership, then you will vote for the other slate, and possibly to pass the zoning reversal. Why ? Because the real vote here is to accept a council zoning decision made in October of 2010, or to reverse it.
Is it really this simple ? With all of the negative campaigning that has taken place, it would be hard to know the real issues and facts. It takes a lot of reading through original documents to see the essence of the Measure Z issue. The interested parties have done a lot of work to shape viewpoints one way or the other, and way too much of it has been obscenely negative. This is really unfortunate. What we have are seven candidates who are hard working, long time residents of the city, each with a diverse background of experiences that can benefit the city council. They are all sincere though their styles and perspectives may differ. We have a zoning question that should have been handled by cooperative discussions between a city staff and developer. Instead we are embroiled in negativity, half truths, and hostility breeding discussions. Ultimately the voters will decide, and deliver a vote of confidence, or no confidence, against our city leaders. Hopefully after the election this can all be laid to rest.