Santa Rosa, Calif., Dec. 17, 2010 — Santa Rosa can’t coerce property owners into joining a special tax district, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge ruled today. Judge Mark Tansil struck down the city’s attempt to impose a tax on landowners without a vote as required by the California Constitution.
At issue is Ordinance 3902, adopted by the Santa Rosa City Council in 2008. It attempts to impose a tax on property owners who seek to build new homes, by requiring them –- as a condition of a building permit — to agree to be annexed into a special tax district for public services.
The challenge was litigated by attorneys with Pacific Legal Foundation, a national watchdog organization for property rights and limited government. In this lawsuit, PLF attorneys represent the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area.
The court agreed that Santa Rosa violated Article XIII(A) of the California Constitution. This provision guarantees that property owners may not be annexed into a special tax district unless two-thirds of those affected vote for the annexation. By denying property owners this right to vote, the ordinance also flouts Equal Protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, as the court also held.
"This is a smashing defeat for the city’s attempt to apply white-out to the state Constitution and repeal the right to vote on special taxes," said PLF Principal Attorney Paul Beard. "City officials were trying to arm-twist property owners into accepting new taxes without a vote, and the judge has called them on it. All property owners, all taxpayers, all voters, can claim a victory today."
Paul Campos, senior vice president and general counsel for the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, issued this statement: "While the building industry is cognizant of the difficult financial circumstances facing cities, that is no justification for Santa Rosa's riding roughshod over firmly established constitutional rights. BIA did not initiate this litigation lightly–in fact we alerted the City Attorney from the beginning that the City was proceeding down a clearly unlawful path. Unfortunately, our concerns were dismissed out-of-hand, and BIA had no option other than filing this litigation to safeguard the constitutional rights of its members and all present and future property owners in Santa Rosa."
The case is BIA of the Bay Area, f/k/a Home Building Association of Northern California, v. Santa Rosa. Judge Tansil’s tentative ruling for PLF and the plaintiff, which he confirmed today, may be found here: http://www.sonomasuperiorcourt.com/index.php?v=dept18lm