MORAGA -- Voters on Nov. 2 will choose from among five candidates to fill two seats on the Town Council.
The seats are currently held by incumbent Mayor Ken Chew and Councilman Dave Trotter, who are both running for re-election.
The challengers, Seth Freeman and husband-and-wife Dennis and Eleni Wanken, are using a similar theme: The current council has not been transparent or responsive to residents.
The Lamorinda Sun sat down with four of the five candidates to discuss the issues facing Moraga. Seth Freeman declined interview requests and e-mailed his responses to questions.
All of the candidates agree something must be done to tackle the town's multimillion-dollar backlog of road and storm drain repair. But they differ on where new taxes to pay for those repairs falls on their priorities list, and about what type of taxes, if any, should be levied.
The town has gotten federal and state grant money to pay for repairs to major roads, but those funds cannot fix failing neighborhood streets, Trotter said.
To pay for those repairs, as well as storm drain repairs, Trotter favors a special benefit assessment district in which property owners would pay a tax proportional to how much they would benefit from the improvement (for example, how many feet of road borders their property).
The town, currently conducting an outreach effort to the community regarding infrastructure needs, will have to educate residents on the infrastructure problem and convince them the money will indeed pay to fix it, Trotter said.
"The challenge for the council is to get buy-in from the residents, to communicate our needs with them, and hopefully "... then we'll be able to get some special tax going in the near future," he said.
Chew does not favor one tax over another, saying his main consideration will be what the town's residents are willing to accept.
Dennis and Eleni Wanken both favor seeking a bond, but only as a last resort.
Eleni Wanken said the town must first rank its infrastructure problems in order of importance.
"By following this approach, we as a community will be able to rank our priorities for infrastructure problems and fix them carefully and thoughtfully," she said.
Dennis Wanken said the town "should be demanding its share of the nearly $1 trillion federal stimulus act funding" as well as encouraging developers to help fund infrastructure projects.
Freeman doubts money from the state and federal government will come, and said a real estate property transfer tax and business tax could bring in the needed revenue without having much of an impact on home sales or businesses, respectively.
A tax on plastic bag use in Moraga could also raise revenue while helping the environment, he added.
Voters would have to approve a town charter before they could approve a transfer tax.
The council has spent the past four years continuing to study the problem, Freeman said, rather than actually solving it.
"What's needed is action, not more studies to avoid making tough political decisions," he said.
Moraga Center Specific Plan
The council in January approved a sweeping plan that would bring hundreds of new residences, additional retail and a new main street to the vacant area next to the Moraga shopping center.
The two incumbents say they want to move forward with implementing the plan. The three challengers, however, say the town needs to take a timeout.
Dennis Wanken said that despite all the work on the plan so far, the town must further consider the impacts of new development and involve the community before beginning implementation.
"Simply glossing over this impact by using terms such as 'affordable housing' and 'transit village' is not being realistic with respect to the long-term impact and implications of this plan," he said.
The town should focus on attracting businesses to existing retail space before considering additional growth, Eleni Wanken said.
Freeman was less measured, calling the plan and its higher densities "inconsistent with semirural values" and a gift to the property owners.
"I would fight to kill (the plan) as it is," he said.
Trotter, who served on the council's specific plan subcommittee, said it was his goal when he was first elected in 2006 to complete the plan, adding he believes the plan has sent a "positive signal" about Moraga to developers.
"I want to continue working with the property owners in the area to make (the plan) a reality," he said.
The first step is getting the town and the property owners together and working cooperatively, Chew said. "Let's work together for the good of the community. If we accept that, then something can be done."
Revitalizing retail areas
While the council approved the Moraga Center Specific Plan in hopes of shoring up that shopping center, no such plan is in place for the Rheem center, which for years has been plagued with vacancies.
Trotter and Chew both said they favor moving forward with a specific plan for the Rheem center.
But before that, Chew added, the council should also consider adopting a retail ordinance outlining what types of stores residents would prefer to see open in Moraga.
Trotter pointed to the town's waiving of application fees for stores opening in existing retail space as one step the council has taken to encourage business.
The town should go further by waiving all business-related fees, Dennis Wanken said, as well as actively engaging business owners about coming to Moraga and establishing a strong working relationship with shopping center owners.
"If we create the environment that is welcoming and supportive of new business, they will come," he said.
Eleni Wanken said she would propose a letter-writing campaign to encourage businesses to relocate.
Freeman was less optimistic. He said the council and a part-time economic development director are unlikely to change longstanding shopping habits that have left businesses reluctant to locate in Moraga.
"We will remain a town with its convenience and service businesses and I don't expect much to change during the next four years," he said. "What we all can do is to patronize the stores we do have whenever possible."
The candidates were mixed on the proposed Dollar Tree store.
Freeman said the retailer would be "destructive to the long-term perception of Moraga," while Eleni Wanken said she supports it because it offers low-cost products to people, like seniors, on fixed incomes.
Dennis Wanken said he supports Dollar Tree from a property owner's perspective but said he would prefer to see a store with more environmentally sensitive products.
Trotter and Chew said because the Dollar Tree is a permitted use in the Rheem center, the council's jurisdiction over the store's application is limited.
"The council will ultimately make their decision based on facts and our planning guidelines and render a decision that's fair on Nov. 10," Chew said.
For the most part, the candidates supported the town's restrictions on development in ridge line and hillside areas.
Chew said any new development should be "sensible and thoughtful" and the town must work closely with property owners to protect open space and ridge lines.
The town's general plan protects the town's outlying areas while at the same time expresses a preference for clustering development near Moraga's shopping centers, Trotter said. Dennis and Eleni Wanken both said while the town must protect its hillsides, it must also be sensitive to the rights of property owners.
"We need to find a balance between continuing to welcome new families to our community while still allowing development to occur without sacrificing out beautiful surroundings," Eleni Wanken said.
Freeman said he is opposed to large housing projects for environmental and practical reasons.
"The existing schools can't afford to service the existing children," he said. "Fewer homes will assist in maintaining the exclusivity of living in Moraga and new homes only make the existing ones look older and less competitive."