Marin IJ

Ross Valley taxpayers face mail-in ballot on flood control charge

Richard Halstead
Marin Independent Journal
Article Launched:05/01/2007 06:22:16 PM PDT

It's official - a ballot measure to raise funds for flood control in the Ross Valley by imposing a new charge for disposing of storm water run-off will be mailed to residents on Friday.

If a simple majority of those who vote approve the measure, it becomes law. All ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on June 25. They will be counted the following day.

Ross Valley's more than 15,000 property owners would be charged based on the estimated amount of run-off their property produces. The average Ross Valley homeowner would pay $125 a year for the next 20 years.

Residents in Fairfax, Greenbrae, Kentfield, Larkspur, Ross and San Anselmo would be required to pay the charge. Renters would not be affected.

About 1,200 homes and 200 businesses were damaged by the flooding that occurred across much of Marin in the early morning of Dec. 31, 2005. The Corte Madera Creek Basin has flooded 14 times over the past 50 years.

On Tuesday, Marin County Supervisors, in their capacity as the Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District board, oversaw a final public hearing on the initiative. Supervisor Hal Brown, who has spearheaded the new effort, said failure to act now would derail flood control efforts for the foreseeable future. Emotions burned hot on both sides of the issue.

Several people objected to the charge being labeled a fee instead of a tax. If the charge were a tax, it would require approval by two-thirds of those casting ballots under Proposition 13. Some also complained about being forced to pay for flood control when their homes don't flood.

"I don't see any reason why I should be coerced by the majority in an end-run process like this," said Ford Greene of San Anselmo. "People make decisions to purchase their houses in a flood plain. There are price differentials. Nobody came to me and helped me pay my mortgage," he said.

Supporters of the charge said the process fully complies with Proposition 13 and Proposition 218, which strictly limit government's ability to levy taxes and fees. Supporters said that everyone who owns property in the Ross Valley contributes to the run-off that produces flooding and all will benefit from flood control - because schools, fire departments and emergency medical facilities that are located in the flood plain will be protected.

"I'm amazed to find that there are people so cheap that they wish to place their neighbors at personal risk of property and life by not taking inexpensive and reasonable efforts to reduce the risk of flooding," said Charles Kirk of San Anselmo, a victim of past flooding.

During the 2005 storm, Corte Madera Creek overflowed its banks in San Anselmo and flooded Kent Middle School in Kentfield, said Joan Lundstrom, a long-time member of the flood control district's advisory board and a Larkspur city councilwoman.

"We're all in this together," Lundstrom said.

Lundstrom said the flood control district lacks the funding to implement significant flood mitigation. The new fee would raise about $40 million over the next 20 years and make the district eligible for millions more in state and federal grants, supporters say.

Many speakers Tuesday urged voters on the initiative to look beyond the impact on their pocketbooks.

"Do you want to remain part of the problem or be part of the solution?" asked Robert Lewis of San Anselmo. "We are a community. We have to come together and support this," he said.

On Tuesday, the initiative was endorsed by the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Friends of Corte Madera Creek and the Marin Conservation League. Some of the money raised by the fee would be used to enhance the watershed's habitat.

The proposal also has the support of the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce and the Flood Mitigation League, a citizen's group that formed after last year's flood of the Ross Valley to lobby government officials to act.

The Marin United Taxpayers Association has stated its opposition, however; no one from the organization spoke at Tuesday's meeting.

Critics of the measure were unimpressed.

"I'm blown away by the warm and fuzzy feeling that is present in these chambers today," said Michael Aaronson of Fairfax.

Aaronson said he recently spent $60,000 and had to battle with government agencies to fortify an eroding creekbank next to a condominium he owns on Corte Madera Creek.

"Presumably, if we'd waited, under your plan parcel owners in Ross Valley would have contributed to this reconstruction," Aaronson said. "No one in this chamber objects to flood control but I object to the process."

Aaronson and San Anselmo resident Louise Mathews both objected to the flood district's decision to exempt public agencies and nonprofit organizations from the fee. Mathews and other critics suggested the measure could face a legal challenge.

Jack Curley, an engineer who oversees the county's participation in the flood protection effort, said the district decided to exempt property owners already exempted from taxes by the State Board of Equalization. Jim Flageollet, the county's chief deputy county counsel, said he is confident the measure will withstand any legal challenges.

If more than half of the Ross Valley's 15,010 had objected to the fee proposal before Tuesday, the proposal would have been scrapped. Officials said 102 letters protesting the fee were submitted.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at
Hub Law Offices 711 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, San Anselmo, California 94960-1949 415-258-0360