Tuesday, February 26, 2008

City Council Meeting: Who Needs Smurfs When We Have MRFs?

The City has finally found a way to boost attendance at City Council meetings. Every two weeks, they do something to annoy/infuriate a new group of Claritans, and some of those Claritans show up to explain just how annoyed/infuriated they are. It’s working brilliantly.

Take tonight’s meeting, which began with the stage direction “Enter pleading skaters en masse.” More than a dozen devotees of the skateboard spoke before the City Council; they're concerned that their skate park is going to be demolished before construction of a new park is complete. The speakers ranged from mothers to sons, from teens to the middle-aged, and from exceedingly polite to slightly threatening. Despite these differences, they agreed on two key points. First, it would be best for City to keep the old skate park open until the new one is completed. Second, skaters predicted that they would wreak havoc on public pavement and school sidewalks if their skate park was to be taken away.

Ken Pulskamp responded with a good news-bad news sandwich (that’ a chunk of bad news sandwiched between two slices of good news to make it more palatable). The good news? The new skate park is being well-funded and will be nearly four times the size of the present facility. The bad? Issues with drainage and grading preclude construction of the new skate park before the old one is demolished. But, to end on a high note, our fearless City Manager predicted that Santa Clarita would only go four months without a skate park, not a year as had been rumored.

There was some grating back and fourth among the Council on how to look out for the skaters for the four months when they’d have no place to recreate. Councilmember Weste, City Manager Pulskamp, and Mayor Pro Tem Ferry agreed that it was important for the project to press on. The skate park is just one aspect of the sports complex improvements, after all; a gymnasium and lighted fields will also be installed. It's not fair, they argued, for skaters to throw a wrench into the parkworks. Still, everyone was sympathetic to the plight of the skateboarder, and the City is going to work with the community to make sure the transition between skate parks is as smooth and painless as possible--in theory. This may include spending $750K to permit construction without prior demolition of the old park but again, that's a cost few of the "higher-ups" are willing to incur.

The next contingent of Claritans to take center stage were the anti-MRFers (that’s Materials Recycling Facility, or MRF—pronounced “murf”). Burrtec[1], a company that specializes in refuse, wants to build a massive MRF right off Sierra Highway. The facility would pull recyclable material out of 3,000 tons of waste a day[2]. That’s all fine and good, except for the fact that it would require 872 garbage truck trips each and every day[3]. Residents along Sierra Highway also mentioned being not so keen on potential smells and sanitation issues associated with such a plant. One woman actually said “Dirty MRF” which, I can assure you, was the first time I ever heard the phrase uttered in my entire life.

Ken Pulskamp and Councilmember Marsha McLean both reminded the audience that the Burrtec project is still in its earliest stages. McLean actually mandated (sort of) a Burrtec sponsored bus tour so that concerned Claritans could see how MRFs integrate and operate in other communities. I think marketing such a trip would put even Gail Ortiz to the test “Press Release: City and Burrtec invite residents to enjoy a day of waste management.”

After all of this exhausting dialogue in the Public Participation section, the Council whizzed through the Consent Calendar. Then, it was on to pot.

The City Council evaluated an amendment to SCV’s Unified Development Code that would prohibit any sort of medical marijuana dispensary from operating in Santa Clarita. This issue didn’t prove terribly controversial; the only public speaker was in support of the amendment, as were the members of the City Council. It looks like those who want medical marijuana are going to have to go beyond our valley borders. So much for shopping local.

[2]I did the math: that’s one-million, ninety-five thousand tons of waste processing a year, or 2,190,000,000 pounds. This is generally regarded as “a lot” or, more colloquially, a sh*tload of sh*t.
[3]More math yet: that’s one truck every 99 seconds.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Only in SCV: City Council Candidates Debate

Brace yourself for a barrage of numbers: On the 15th, Claritans were treated to two hours with the five candidates vying for two City Council seats[1,2]. (Barrage over). The debate brought us a little bit of everything. Bob Spierer critiqued Newhall Hardware’s business plan (too much money tied up in inventory, apparently), Maria Gutzeit mentioned eminent domain, Laurie Ender said “soccer dads”…

I’m going to skip over the stuff on which all of the candidates agreed, namely that we should improve traffic, have a good relationship with LA County, and encourage business in the SCV. After warming up with these easy issues, I was happy to hear Stephen K. Peeples[3] ask about Henry Mayo.

Generally, everyone agreed that we need a hospital expansion and another new hospital to boot. The candidates could have easily addressed whether they wanted to see all of the proposed medical office buildings go in, etc., but few did. Kellar, Spierer, and Gutzeit skirted specific answers by saying they were helpless until they had the revised Environmental Impact Report for the hospital expansion in hand. Ender was more direct, saying that HMNMH is “our one and only hospital” and advocating expansion until a new hospital facility is built. Trautman was the most specific, however, saying that she would support 2 of the 4 proposed medical office buildings with a mandate for the inpatient building. She reminded us that she spent hundreds of hours looking at plans and contracts regarding HMNMH as part of the City Planning Commission.

As for what to do about Canyon Country and eastern Santa Clarita in general, candidates got controversial. They made outlandish suggestions for things like graffiti control, code enforcement, a community center, and more community-enhancing amenities. Additionally, it was all aboard the Stop CEMEX Express after Spierer mentioned the mega-mining project.

Maria Gutzeit’s candor about redevelopment in Newhall got everyone’s attention. She said “I would say that, um, we’ve been afraid to utter the big scary word about eminent domain, and instead we have businesses that are dying a slow death. I’m very scared that downtown Newhall is going to be boarded up soon.” Gutzeit says business owners in Old Town know what is coming and deserve to be bought out fairly and promptly.

Kellar took a different tack, encouraging us to be charitable and donate our purchases to needy private businesses. Trautman echoed some of these sentiments.

Spierer won major points for offering business advice: “We need to work with those business owners and educate them.” Newhall Hardware, for example, wasn't sufficiently "educated" to know how to efficiently handle its inventory.

Finally, Ender asked of the redevelopment project “Does the end justify the means?”, noting—as other candidates did—that Newhall is in the midst of a rough transition period. She suggested that a perfect storm of local construction and downturns in the national economy was working against businesses. Unfortunately, there was no forecast for when the storm would clear.

If you survived these two hours and have a masochistic streak, you don't have to wait long for your next fix. Just two days from now (February 20th) we get to hear from City Council candidates again.

[1]For election information, visit Vote Santa Clarita .
[2]The debate can be heard on KHTS website here.
[3]For a lesson in humility, visit Mr. Peeples's website.

Happenings: More Work for Marlee (Lauffer, that is)

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcón released a press release this weekend that has some slow-growth Santa Claritans excited and Newhall Land not-quite-so-excited. You see, he’s worried that Newhall Ranch will exacerbate traffic problems in LA and decrease quality of life for LA residents. Thus, Alarcón is urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to submit letters opposing Landmark Village, the first of four phases planned for the Newhall Ranch development. The full press release may be read here.

To get Newhall Land’s/Lennar’s/LNR’s side of the story, visit the Newhall Ranch website here under the banner “connecting community to nature.” Romantic, no? You can sign up to be a “Friend of Newhall Ranch”—if that’s your thing—and read about efforts to relocate and/or protect the Western Spadefoot Toad, San Fernando Valley Spineflower, Plummer’s Mariposa Lily, and other sensitive species with long names found in the Newhall Ranch area.

May the firm-but-civil-letter-of-opposition-that-doesn't-really-do-much live forever!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happenings: V-Day in SCV

Happy Valentine's Day, Santa Clarita and Santa Claritans!
(take the above as further proof that Microsoft Paint is the best software on earth)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happenings: CC Shafts Old Town Newhall, Jim Farley

Two issues dominated the City Council meeting tonight: the demise of Newhall Hardware and the Open Space Financial Accountability and Audit Panel. I’ll deal with the Open Space business—and drama—first.

Of Last Minute Swaps and Glaring Omissions

Was Cam Noltemeyer responsible for a last minute Ferry flip-flop on Open Space appointees? I’ll get around to answering that question in a bit, but first, a little background is in order.

As their last task for the evening, each member of the City Council was charged with appointing a member of the Open Space Financial Accountability and Audit Panel. The panel has limited powers concerning the recently approved initiative to funnel taxpayer dollars into acquiring open space in and around Santa Clarita. They can’t prioritize open space actions or help in the acquisition process. They just make sure that taxpayer money is spent according to the conditions laid out for the Open Space Preservation District.

Since most of the details surrounding the Open Space Preservation District and Accountability Panel are either (a)convoluted, (b)boring, or (c)both, the issue has received little attention from the community at large. Luckily, people like Cam Noltemeyer, Jim Farley, and Sterling King have kept an eye on things. They uncovered some questionable practices (click here for more) and provided some much needed criticism of the measure. This scrutiny meant that despite the Audit Panel’s limited power, its composition had huge symbolic importance and was a chance for the City to get things rights. Predictably, they did not.

Indeed, I was almost certain that Jim Farley was going to be appointed to serve on the five-person panel. He knows all about the Preservation District’s inner workings. Though he has been critical of how the tax assessment to fund land acquisition was passed, he is clearly committed to doing what is in Santa Clarita’s best interests. Furthermore, his appointment would have pacified a lot of critics. Appointing Farley would reassure them that approval of land purchases wasn’t being granted without an outsider's careful appraisal and consideration. Logically, then, no Councilmember chose to appoint him. Instead, Spence Leafdale, Wendy Langhans, Calvin Hedman, Henry Schultz, and Alan Ferdman were appointed, respectively, by Kellar, Ferry, Weste, McLean, and Boydston. All of these people were qualified, but none have been tied to the issue as closely as Farley or followed it with his dedication.

For City Council watchdogs, Farley’s snub was a major insult, but a symbolic slap to the face may just have been prevented by Cam Noltemeyer. Indeed, she spoke about applicant Robert Lee minutes before the appointments were made. Lee, it seems, has some suspicious ties to uber-developer Larry Rasmussen and was linked to past lobbying efforts for high-density development. Additionally, we were reminded that Robert Lee had turned in an incomplete application, missing one of the three letters of recommendation. These revelations got Councilmember Frank Ferry to show his hand a little early. Ferry asked the City Attorney about whether late/incomplete applicants (only Robert Lee and Michael Hildebrand fell into this category) were disqualified from serving (they weren’t), and he asked for a five-minute recess to process some “new information”--presumably from Cam's speech about Lee. Using my considerable powers of deduction, I think this points quite clearly to Councilmember Ferry having planned to nominate Robert Lee. If this was indeed his original plan, Noltemeyer’s comments must have gotten him to change his mind. For, when it came time to appoint, he selected Wendy Langhans, a retired, quietly passionate naturalist with a good deal of business experience to boot.

In sum, then, Open Space critics were insulted by the Council’s failure to nominate Jim Farley, but they weren’t slapped in the face since applicant Robert Lee wasn’t Farley’s replacement.

Newhall Hardware and Building Discontent

Everyone loves Nehwall Hardware. They don’t love it enough to shop there very much, but they’re in love with the idea that a locally-owned, semi-historic business can still make it in today’s cruel world of cost-cutting and low consumer loyalty. There were two speakers during the public participation section who touched on the topic of its imminent closure. Both wanted to see the City do everything it could to stop Newhall Hardware from shutting its doors. Everyone on Council chimed in with their heart-felt agreement. Many, like Councilmember McLean, seemed deeply troubled by the thought that Newhall Hardware is probably going away forever. Despite being unified in their sympathy, there was nothing the City itself could really do to help the business stay afloat. Indeed, the City is free to re-stripe roads, use eminent domain, and choke off customer traffic by a business, but they’re not allowed to help it. I know, I’m probably not being fair. As Boydston and McLean noted, there usually isn’t a parking problem when you try to get into Newhall Hardware. Still, it’s not as though City actions have had any really positive effect on Newhall Hardware and other local businesses.

One Newhall businessman who spoke with calm but damning conviction was Art Tresierras (of the market of the same name). He said “I am deeply concerned” with regard to changes in traffic flow and other challenges for business owners in Newhall. He talked about parking issues and a frustrating problem with advertising. You see, with the new traffic patterns, the backs of businesses are now the de facto storefronts, but the City won’t allow advertising on that side. Business owners have actually been cited for putting signs out for traffic on their shops’ rear edifices. Tresierras closed by saying that the City does "not have the right to attempt to destroy the businesses in the area.” Blessed candor!

Regardless of what factor or factors are to blame for business closures and struggles, one truth is becoming clear: revitalizing Old Town Newhall is the project where everyone wants to have their cake and eat it, too. Only the yucky businesses should leave. Only nice, boutique-ish, tax revenue-generating businesses should come in. And, of course, street, traffic, and aesthetic changes should bring about results consistent with these goals of out with the yucky, in with the nice. The City is really micro-managing this “revitalization”, and I think they’re going to find the use of eminent domain more and more irresistible as things continue to go in ways the planning committee hadn’t, well, planned. This is why we should all listen to Linda Slocum[1] more—she follows Newhall redevelopment more closely than anyone and has been giving warnings to Claritans for months and months. To understand what is going on, you have to realize that some people genuinely believe Old Town Newhall will be transformed from dump to destination. As Councilmember Marsha McLean put it “We’re making Newhall the perfect place for them [businesses] to be.” I suspect that Newhall Hardware, Tresierras Market, Antique Flower Garden, automotive shops, and others beg to differ.

Other Notes
Well that’s the bulk of the meeting digested, then, but we also had another street renaming (welcome Railroad Avenue); a visitor from Australia; a safety lesson from Sergeant Cohen; and City grants to non-profits totaling $100,000--which is nothing to scoff at.

(left)There’s an Aussie in my audience! She (sorry, I forgot to take her name) came from a far-off land to learn about what a great place Santa Clarita is and to sing its praises for the Council—this makes her a “pilgrim.” Yes, I'm being quite serious. (right) Worden waxes historic on renaming yet more streetage. Said one man, “Railroad Avenue just sounds bad.” No, it sounds an awful lot like Monopoly, and who doesn't like board games?

[1]Local realtor, blogger, comentator, and questioner; her blog is here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Only in SCV: Valentine's Day Plans

There are fewer than three days between now and Valentine's. I have already arranged for a romantic dinner with my beloved valley on one of her idyllic, brushy hillsides. It will be just me, Santa Clarita, a picnic dinner for two, and one-hundred flickering candles. Should you hear of a brushfire some time on the night of the fourteenth, I may be the unintentional culprit and will be, presumably, quite thoroughly charred.

If you have a different V-day date in mind, read my February ramblings from inside SCV magazine. I offer some advice to those confused, perplexed, and/or befuddled by the proper conduct for V-day in Santa Clarita

Friday, February 1, 2008

Happenings: McKeon and Earmarks, a Love/Hate Relationship

I don’t think this needs any commentary. Just read the excerpts and pay particular attention to the word "earmark."

From CNN on October 31, 2007[1]:
“In tiny Bishop, California, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, wants to build a museum honoring the mule.

McKeon has requested a $50,000 earmark to explore the possibility of building a museum in the town that every Memorial Day weekend holds the biggest mule celebration in the United States.

It might sound preposterous, but McKeon is doing what many of his House colleagues are doing -- appropriating federal funds for pet projects back home.

McKeon has requested funds for studying the feasibility of building the museum and providing support for operations.

McKeon defended the earmark in a statement sent to CNN as supporting economic development in his district.”

Press Release from U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon’s website on January 31, 2008:
"Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) joins House Republicans in challenging Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership to enact meaningful earmark reform by supporting the creation of a bipartisan Earmark Reform Joint Committee.

'It has become glaringly obvious that the current earmarking process needs to be addressed and reformed,' stated McKeon. 'Sadly, we have seen earmark abuse from members on both sides of the aisle, but to date, Republicans are the only ones taking steps to tackle the issue.'"

And the worst part is, it was McKeon's own people who decided to draw attention to that quotation with the italics. Oy vey!

[1] “Bucks for mule museum cause brays” by Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
[2] “McKeon Encourages Democrats to Answer Republican Call for Earmark Reform
[3] Incidentally, my sister owns a mule and has actually taken it to Bishop to participate in the Mule Days event mentioned in the CNN piece. No, really, I’m serious. Below are pictures of her large pet: