Marin IJ

Ross Valley narrowly approves flood control fee

Richard Halstead
Marin Independent Journal
Article Launched:06/29/2007 11:53:23 PM PDT

A new fee designed to implement flood control in the Ross Valley squeezed out a narrow victory Friday, winning by just 65 votes - after 1,708 ballots were judged invalid.

The fee will raise about $40 million over the next 20 years for flood control. Passage of the measure represents a victory for Supervisor Hal Brown, who spearheaded the campaign after 1,200 homes and 200 businesses were damaged by flooding that occurred across much of Marin in the early morning of Dec. 31, 2005.

The Ross Valley was hit the hardest. The Corte Madera Creek Basin has flooded 14 times over the past 50 years.

Marin County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold said most of the invalid ballots - more than 1,000 - were unsigned. Ginnold said the invalid ballots weren't counted so she couldn't say how they would have affected the outcome.

"We just put them aside," Ginnold said.

The unsigned ballots were disqualified even though they had the name of the person they were mailed to pre-printed on them, together with the person's parcel number, Ginnold said.

"It said right on the ballot that they had to be signed to be valid," Ginnold said. In a typical election, people who vote by mail are required to sign the envelope that contains their ballot, but not the ballot itself, she said.

The final tally was 3,208 yes votes to 3,143 no votes. Of the 15,010 ballots mailed out to Ross Valley property owners on May 4, 8,059 were returned, Ginnold said.

Louise Mathews of San Anselmo, a staunch opponent of the fee, said the unsigned ballots should be considered valid.

"This is an absolute aberration of the process," Mathews said.

Despite the narrow victory, Brown said he was pleased.

"An enormous amount of energy and effort has gone into this over the last year and a half," Brown said.

"It wasn't a ringing endorsement," he said, "but it passed, and that is what this process is all about. There have been close elections for eons, and this is one of them."

The Ross Valley Flood Control District's more than 15,000 property owners will be charged based on the estimated amount of storm water run-off their property produces. For that reason, the charge qualified as a fee, not a tax, and the ballot measure's adoption required a simple majority of those property owners casting ballots.

Residents in Fairfax, Greenbrae, Kentfield, Larkspur, Ross and San Anselmo will be required to pay the charge. The average homeowner will pay $125 a year. Renters will not be affected.

Supporters say the money raised by the fee will make the flood control district eligible for millions more in state and federal grants.

The measure had the backing of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Friends of Corte Madera Creek, the Marin Conservation League, the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce and the Flood Mitigation League, a citizen's group that formed after the 2005 flood to lobby government officials to act.

Opponents complained about being forced to pay for flood control when their homes don't flood. And they insisted that the fee really constitutes a new tax, and therefore should have been approved under the rules governing new taxes established by Proposition 13. New taxes are voted on by registered voters, not property owners, and require the support of two-thirds of those voting for approval.

Now that a revenue stream has been secured, the next step will be to refine plans for flood mitigation, said Bob Beaumont, chief assistant director of the county's Public Works Department. Environmental impact studies will be required.

"There will be public meetings. All the individual jurisdictions will be involved," Beaumont said.

Three bottlenecks on Corte Madera Creek have been identified as likely starting points to address flooding. Two of the three worst blockages are in Ross - where a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project has been stalled since 1971. The Ross choke points are at the Lagunitas Road Bridge and a wooden fish ladder about 600 feet downstream from the bridge. The Madrone Avenue Bridge in San Anselmo is considered equally troublesome.

Brown said, "It passed. Now we get on with the work of it - unless some court steps in and says no."

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at

IJ Photo

 Valerie Hoff of TLA Engineering and Planning (left) and election worker Lydia Fleming count the ballots and scan the results into a computer. Voters in the Ross Valley narrowly approved a storm water drainage fee to pay for projects aimed at preventing serious flooding that has plagued the area over the years. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)
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