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Highland initiatives face uphill battle

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HIGHLAND — Citizen activists have gathered enough signatures to place three initiatives before the Highland City Council, but they now face an uphill battle — one that does not look promising early on — to get them approved.

The initiatives would create a water board to manage the town's water infrastructure, change the way city-owned open space is landscaped and maintained, and limit the types of fences that can be built along open-space property lines.

Members of the City Council appeared less-than-enthusi astic when presented with the initiatives at Tuesday's meeting, reacting with concern and hesitation. The body indicated it will not vote on the initiatives until a Sept. 6 meeting in order to gather more information and consult with city attorney David Church.

When contacted Wednesday, Church said he is particularly concerned over the Water Board Initiative, which would create a body of five publicly elected members to manage the city's water funds and expand its water infrastructure.

"The water board, if approved, would be in conflict with the statutory powers of the City Council," Church said.

Church said creating a water board would require the City Council to go through a difficult process of amending city code. He also said there is a problem with the eligibility requirements for water board candidates.

Elisabeth Luntz, one of the residents who sponsored the Water Board Initiative, said she would welcome the added attention a difficult legal battle would bring.

"If there are legal repercussions, people will fight even harder to maintain democratic control over their natural resources," she said.

Luntz said the city's takeover earlier this year of facilities formerly owned and operated by a private water company that had provided the water utility since the city's creation was "unjust." She said the initiative is intended to provide public input in the handling of the water infrastructure and to ensure that the city doesn't raise rates to increase revenue.

"This was done to ensure democratic oversight and protect against possible corruption when these issues are decided by a very small group," Luntz said.

While Church said there were no obvious legal difficulties with the other initiatives, their sponsors may still face a challenge from skeptical City Council members.

Council members were especially worried about the Open Space Initiative, which would require the city to install grass on all the land set aside as open space within Highland.

City Administrator Barry Edwards told the council Tuesday that doing so would cost a projected $140,000. If the city were to collect that money from property taxes, Edwards said, it would have to raise that tax by 20 percent.

Councilwoman Gwyn Franson called the proposal "a huge financial burden, one I'm not willing to accept."

In an interview Wednesday, Highland Public Works Director Matt Shipp said the initiative's provisions would be highly difficult to implement.

"The city owns open space in natural areas that have scrub oaks and other natural vegetation," he said. "It has open space on rocky hillsides. (Placing grass) is not very practical in those areas."

But residents who sponsored the Open Space Initiative maintain their requests are not unreasonable.

"I think (the Council's reaction) is a problem," said resident Candace Hafen. "I think the city needs grass and it shouldn't have put open space if it can't make it look nice."

Hafen said she has been frustrated by open space areas that are unappealing, especially a chunk next to her home that is overrun with weeds.

"It just makes you not even want to keep your yard nice," she said.

Hafen believes the initiative is fair because it only asks for grass as opposed to more expensive landscaping materials like trees.

The same group of citizens may face less opposition in its other proposal, the Local Fence Initiative, which would make minor modifications to the type and height of fences that homeowners could build along property lines bordering designated open space.

Council members were more reserved in their reaction to that initiative, but still cited a need for more information, particularly about how many homes would be impacted by the change.

State law allows citizens to put an initiative before a city government by obtaining signatures from 15 percent of the total number of people who voted in the last election for governor, as long as the total number of votes was between 2,500 and 10,000. The signature must be from a registered voter who lives within the city and it must be legible.

In Highland, 5,023 people voted in last year's governor election, meaning each initiative required 753 signatures to be placed before the City Council. The Water Board Initiative had 901 recorded signatures, the Open Space Initiative had 851, and the Local Fence Initiative had 847. The council has 30 days to respond to the initiatives. Highland received the initiatives on Aug. 9 and 10, which puts the planned Sept. 6 vote within those guidelines.

State law gives the Council four options: adopt the initiative as written, effectively making it a city policy without appearing on the general election ballot (although opponents could conceivably submit an alternative initiative that would force the measure onto the ballot); approve the initiative for placement on the ballot; approved an amended version of the initiative that would then compete with the original version on the ballot; or allow the initiative to appear on the ballot without a council endorsement.

E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com