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Q1: What is an initiative?

A1: An initiative is a citizen-initiated proposal of a new law or an amendment to existing law, such as the General Plan or the State Constitution. The initiative and referendum processes were enshrined in the California Constitution over 100 years ago. The initiative to give our residents the final say on the privatization of city-owned parks and public land is qualified for the ballot because volunteers collected signatures from over 10% of registered voters. If the initiative is approved at the November 2018 election, the initiative will amend the Los Altos General Plan.

Q2: What does this initiative do?

A2: Primarily, the initiative gives residents the final say on the privatization of city-owned land. A vote of the residents of Los Altos would be required:

  • to approve the sale of any city-owned park land or open space, the sale of other city-owned public land more than 7500 square feet in area, or a lease of city-owned land for more than 180 days.
  • to change the General Plan designation of city-owned land to a different land use, although change from “Public and Institutional” to “Parks” would be allowed without a vote. Thus, the City could change a city-owned parking lot to a park without a vote, but would need a vote to change a park to a parking lot.
  • to change the uses permitted for the “Parks,” “Other Open Space,” or “Public and Institutional” land use designations in the General Plan.

Q3: How does this initiative benefit the future of Los Altos?

A3: It gives residents the ultimate decision on whether our existing park land and other city-owned land remains for the enjoyment of our citizens and future generations or is sold or leased for private purposes.

Q4: Do any other cities have this kind of law?

A4: Yes, many cities have similar requirements. Some have passed such an initiatives after their City Councils sold or leased a piece of public park land for private use. Most recently, in 2016 both Santa Clara and Milpitas passed initiatives similar to this. Los Altos Hills adopted a similar measure in 2003.

Q5: With this initiative, will other development projects need to be approved by the voters?

A5: No. This initiative affects the potential sale ONLYof city-owned parksor other city-owned land, or the leasing of such land for more than 180 days. 

Q6: Would this affect private or public schools? What about churches?

A6: No. The city does not own the land of any private or public schools, or of any churches. Therefore, this initiative does not affect the sale, lease, or development of such property. Current land-use policies and zoning requirements will continue to apply without change.

Q7: How does this initiative affect agreements involving Neutra House, the History Museum, and Bus Barn at the Civic Center? What about the fire stations?

A7: It has no effect on existing agreements or the extension or renewal of those agreements. The initiative cannot be applied retroactively and therefore has no effect on the agreements involving these parts of the Civic Center property or the fire stations or libraries.

The plain language of Policy 1.A1 of the initiative makes clear that it only applies to “any change” in the list of uses in the General Plan and “any of the following actions” – which includes leases of more than 180 days. Those terms are forward looking. They do not apply retroactively. Further evidence is in Section 4, which states that the initiative does not apply to any “ongoing activity” that has a vested right. The activities and agreements being cited by some (e.g. Neutra House, History Museum, Bus Barn, Library, Fire stations) therefore are NOT affected by the initiative.

Not convinced yet? It is well established under California State Law that laws do not apply retroactively unless they expressly say so. There is NO language in the initiative that would make anything retroactive.

Two relevant examples from California case law:
Evangelatos v. Superior Court (1988) 44 Cal. 3d 1188, 1212 (1988) “[T]he drafters of Proposition 51 would have included a specific provision providing for retroactive application of the initiative measure if such retroactive application had been intended.”
Yoshioka v. Superior Court (1997) 58 Cal. App. 4th 972, 980 “Generally, ‘[t]he presumption is very strong that a statute was not meant to act retrospectively, [wherein] [i]t ought not receive such a construction unless the words used are so clear, strong and imperative that no other meaning can be annexed to them, or unless the intention of the legislature cannot be otherwise satisfied.’”

Q8: What about future projects at the Civic Center?

A8: Projects that retain public use would likely not be affected. Projects that have the effect of privatizing the City-owned land would likely require a vote, depending on the specifics.

Q9: Will the initiative stop any of the development on El Camino?

A9: No. None of the parcels on El Camino are city-owned, so this initiative would not apply to any development on El Camino.

Q10: Will the initiative prevent further development of residential or office use?

A10: No. The initiative does not apply to any privately owned land.

Q11: Will this affect the City's obligation to provide affordable housing?

A11: No. The “Housing Element” of our General Plan was approved by the State of California as meeting all requirements for providing housing in Los Altos, including affordable housing. According to that plan, the City can meet its obligations through future development and greater density of privately owned parcels and does not require the use of any city-owned land. Therefore, this initiative does not conflict with the Housing Element. Further, it does not affect the development of private land. The initiative has specific language to exempt the voter-approval requirement if necessary to meet State or Federal housing law, including affordable housing needs that may be required in the future.

Q12: How does the initiative tie in with the current Downtown Visioning effort?

A12: The initiative is not related to that effort. If City Council wants to undertake a project that privatizes city land that is “public/institutional” (many of the parking plazas), then the provisions of the initiative could come into effect.

Q13: Why is this an amendment to the General Plan? What’s a General Plan?

A13: The General Plan, called the ”constitution for future development” by the California Supreme Court, is a long-term guide for the City’s future development. As with the U.S. Constitution, amendments to the General Plan are made rarely.

The ballot measures triggered by this initiative are expected to be rare also, but they would guarantee that residents decide whether to privatize park land, open space, or other city-owned land.

Q14: Why does the initiative require a vote only on the sale of other city-owned land over 7500 square feet? Does that apply to parks, too?

A14: Any sale of city-owned park land or open space would require a vote. The vote required for the sale of OTHER (non-park) city-owned land of more than 7500 square feet allows the city to dispose of small such parcels that it may not need. The initiative also makes exceptions for underground easements for utilities and other essential services.

Q15: Why does this initiative require a vote to change the designation of city-owned property to a different land use?

A15: Protecting park and open-space uses, and maintaining other city-owned land for the use and benefit of our residents, is essential to the quality of life in Los Altos. For example, if the city wants to change park land to allow residential development, that would have a significant effect. Such a change would therefore require a vote of the residents. There is an exception that allows changing city-owned land in the “Public and Institutional” category to “Park” without a vote.

Q16: What does it mean that a vote would be required for a change of permitted uses within a category?

A16: The General Plan shows the planned land use for every parcel in the city, according to several categories. Each land use is defined as to what can be done within that category. If the city wants to change that for any of the three categories included in this initiative (Park, Open Space, and Public and Institutional), it would require a vote.

Q17: Will this initiative interfere with public-private partnerships?

A17: This term most often applies to infrastructure public-private partnerships that are governed by California Government Code section 5956. That State law would take precedence. Most often, public-private partnerships are where the public entity provides an asset (e.g. land). Then the private entity puts up the funds to develop the project and recovers its investment and makes a profit (ROI – return on investment) from the project. If such a project had the effect of privatizing the use of city-owned land, it might require a vote.

Many things informally called “public-private partnerships” are not. Commercial development in the downtown triangle where a private developer provides a public benefit in exchange for a change in zoning or reduced development standards is NOT a public-private partnership. Donations from private individuals or non-profits to create or improve public assets for public benefit are not “public-private partnerships.” An agreement for a non-profit organization to operate a city-owned property for the benefit of all residents is not a “public-private partnership.” None of these would be affected by this initiative.

Q18: Will voters need to vote often on sales or leases?

A18: Such votes should be rare. The last sale of city-owned land was in 2010, when the property at the corner of First and Main Street (now 400 Main Street) was sold.

Q19: Won't it be expensive to have an election every time there is a sale or lease as required by this initiative?

A19: Ballot measures triggered by this initiative are expected to be rare. The city council chooses the type of election. There is no requirement for a special election. $35,000-50,000 is the estimated cost to add a measure to the ballot for voter approval. The cost of a mail-only election would be less. With approximately 20,000 registered voters, $1.25 per registered voter is a small priceto pay to ensure that the sale or long-term lease meets the vision of a majority of Los Altos voters. Privatizing the City’s land should be done only with the concurrence of the residents who care about retaining the quality of life in our City.

Q20: Are the supporters of this initiative NIMBYs? Are they against growth?

A20: NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is a term usually applied by people promoting large new development projects to discredit those opposing the project. It’s not “NIMBY” to ask the citizens whether they want to privatize public land that we all own.

Q21: How many parks do we have in Los Altos?

A21: That’s an important question and difficult to answer because of the way the city has identified parks in various documents.

Our General Plan says, “Existing park land in Los Altos is minimal, with a ratio of approximately 1.3 acres of dedicated park land per 1,000 residents.” It lists 12 parks for a total of 38.1 acres, which equals 1.27 acres per 1,000 residents. It lists both Covington and Montclaire, which are on school property, but operated by the city.

The 2012 Parks Plan shows different parks, omitting the park at Covington school, yet acreage is greater than that shown in the General Plan.  This amounts to 1.49 acres per 1,000 residents.


General Plan
Parks Plan
Covington 2 Not listed
Grant 3.5 4.5
Heritage Oaks 5 5.33
Hillview 6 6.63
Lincoln 2.5 4.44
Marymeade 2.5 2.47
McKenzie 1.3 4.3
Montclaire* 0.75 1.10
Redwood Grove 6 6.12
Rosita 5 5.00
Shoup 2.8 3.95
Village 0.75 0.78
TOTAL 38.1 44.62
* Leased from Cupertino Union School District

Q22: How does that compare to park land in nearby cities?

A22:The 2012 Parks Plan, adjusted for the most recent population numbers,
provides the following information:


City 2016 Population Park Acreage Park Acres per 1,000 Residents
San Carlos 29,797 143 4.80
Campbell* 40,939 132 3.22
Burlingame 30,301 94 3.10
Cupertino* 60,643 162 2.67
Mountain View* 80,477 187 2.32
Palo Alto 67,024 162 2.42
Saratoga 30,767 63 2.05
Menlo Park 33,888 54 1.59
Los Altos 30,561 45.45 1.49
* Includes school sites under joint-use  agreements

Note that the Los Altos acreage in this table is greater than the 44.62 acres shown in Table 1 because it includes Veterans Community Plaza (0.16 acre), the Tiny Tots property (0.5 acre) and the Hetch Hetchy Trail (0.17 acre, owned by the City and County of San Francisco) as parks.

Q23: How much other public land (not parks) do we have?

A23: Our public lands, excluding parks, include:

  • Civic Center, on which property City Hall, police station, main library, Los Altos Youth Center (LACY), Hillview Community Center, History Museum, Bus Barn Theatre and Neutra House are located.
  • Historic orchard within the civic center property
  • Veterans Community Plaza downtown
  • Public Plaza outside the Enchante Hotel
  • Downtown parking plazas
  • Land on which 3 fire stations are located
  • Maintenance yard
  • Woodland Library property
  • Tiny Tots property on San Antonio Road
  • Several other parcels used primary as buffers along major roads.

Q24: Who is behind this initiative?

A24: A group of citizens from all parts of Los Altos got together to discuss their concerns about what had been happening in other cities and the development pressures on Los Altos. The initiative grew out of those discussions. Three people signed to submit this initiative: James Jolly is a long-time resident of North Los Altos; Tom Ferry is a native Los Altan who is a lifelong resident in the Loyola Corners area; Betsy Reeves is a long-time resident of the Grant Park neighborhood. Dozens of residents volunteered to collect signatures and help get this measure on the November 2018 ballot.

Q25: Who collected the signatures? Were they paid?

A25: No one was paid to collect signatures. All the signature collectors were volunteers.

Q26: Were we ever in danger of losing any of our parkland?

A26: Yes, In an April 23, 2014, letter to the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees, the city council said it was willing to discuss the possibility of opening a new school at either McKenzie or Rosita Park. That was just 2 years after the city spent $2.1 million dollars to renovate Rosita to update it to a beautiful community park with opportunities for a variety of users. Fortunately, the LASD Trustees put language in the bond measure to prevent bond money from being used to build schools on Rosita and McKenzie Parks.