Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Happenings: History Will Have to Wait

At tonight's City Council meeting, the new County Assessor displayed smiles; Laurie Ender displayed a new do; and Leon Worden displayed questionable taste in ties.

They’re Back

After what I suspect was a summer break full of drunken debauchery, the City Council members returned to City Hall, ready to do the work of the people—which people, I do not know[1]. I do know, however, that I wasn’t alone in dreading this first post-vacation meeting; recall what happened last year (starts with an “l”, ends with an “ibrary takeover”.)

Councilmember Frank Ferry offered the invocation. He recently went to the wedding of a former student, and the father of the bride said “it took a village” to raise his daughter, a phrase I thought had perished when the Clintons left the White House. In any case, Ferry said that having more than 100 heroin-related arrests and 9 heroin-related deaths in a year meant that Santa Clarita needs more of a village mentality, keeping an eye on drug use among all kids, not just one’s own.

Plambeck’s Protégé

City recognitions and presentations came next. Recently retired Saugus Superintendent Judy Fish was applauded for her work. John Noguez, the new LA County Assessor, came in to introduce himself. “Thank you all for showing up for me, this is wonderful!” he joked while looking at the large audience. Noguez was all smiles and full of good news, noting that there are fewer foreclosures and a small increase in Santa Clarita’s total property values. "At least the recovery is now here,” he offered to more or less skeptical minds. Lastly, 9th grader Isabella Clark came up to detail her pursuit of a Girl Scout Silver Award for a project with SCOPE, the involvement of which may have riled the City Council a bit. Isabella riffed on endangered and under-appreciated wildlife of the Santa Clara River. She then explained her project to bring signs to bridges that span the river, letting people know the Santa Clara is there. She was a regular little Lynne Plambeck.

McLean Wants to Ban Plastic Bags?

Councilmember updates followed. Mayor Pro-tem Laurie Ender talked about couples that will be honored as role models and leaders of character at some Boy Scout Event. The list included at least one couple that should be cause for raised eyebrows. Councilmember Bob Kellar spoke about remembrance ceremonies for 9/11. He also encouraged bringing kids to the upcoming Constitution Summit, which sounds exactly like something kids want to do. Councilmember Laurene Weste said that Senator Boxer will be at the new transit facility for a dedication. Dedicating a structure may be one task the half-witted senator can perform ably...but then I’m an optimist. Mayor McLean asked people to donate food to food pantries, noting an on-going need. She also reminded Claritans to bring items for the library time capsule being entombed on Thursday. You just bring something that fits in a gallon-sized plastic bag, and it goes into the capsule. I'm thinking about bringing some sushi from our best restaurant, Maru, so that people in 50 years will know about what we ate.

And then the Mayor just asked for trouble. With some trepidation, McLean said she wants to start a “really big conversation” about following the path of LA County and banning plastic bags at local retailers. She framed it as if she just wanted to get more information, but the mere proposal of such a discussion shows that a bag ban is something McLean is ready to consider. Mentioning plastic bags is worth at least 40 comments on The Signal’s website, so I’m sure this conversation, if it happens, will indeed be “really big.”

Consent Calendar Conundrums

On the Consent Calendar, most comments came and went with little consequence. Cam Noltemeyer and David Gauny were concerned about a parcel map of the Newhall Memorial Hosptial campus. The map provided on the agenda didn’t show the boundaries of the three parcels that were created, and it was a poorly presented item pertaining to what remains a sensitive issue. That did not help quell suspicions. City Attorney Joe Montes promised that the map was simply implementing and illustrating decisions that had already been made.

There were also concerns over Item 12, which created an Enforceable Obligation Payment Schedule in response to dissolution of redevelopment agencies. The courts still have to weigh in on the contentious topic of special redevelopment agencies, like the one for Newhall, and there are certain obligations dictated by the State regarding these agencies. It seemed that what had the primary opposed speaker (Cam Noltemeyer) really upset were the amounts of debt revealed in the payment schedule. There is some $93M in outstanding debt or obligation for the redevelopment of Old Town Newhall, which is kind of a lot of money.

As a result of the Consent Calendar passing, the Enforceable Obligation Payment Schedule was accepted, as was the hospital parcel map, and there will be various improvements, such as a Valencia Meadows pool renovation and sidewalks and landscaping for part of Newhall Avenue.

Welcome to Clarita

Annexations can be hugely controversial, but tonight’s wasn’t. 3200 homes, 3 schools, and 3 parks will be pre-zoned in preparation for annexation into the City of Santa Clarita. They’re located in the northern reaches of the valley and comprise Bouquet Canyon, Haskell Canyon, and Raintree. Also pre-zoned were three tracts that will add another 132 homes, if or when they are built out.

As noted, this was a generally popular plan. 87% of respondents to the initial survey on annexation liked the idea, so the council had no problem moving forward with the process. There were a few speakers, most of whom presented rather localized concerns about a few houses being left out or regarding the policing of trespassing motorcyclists. The most memorable speaker, though, was an elderly woman who was talking rather quietly. Mayor McLean asked her to speak into the microphone, promising “We want to hear you.” Without missing a beat, the woman replied, “No you don’t!” Laughter ensued.

Hands off My History
"What is historic to some is simply old to others."
Alan Ferdman

The Historic Preservation Ordinance has been debated for years. To bring you up to speed, there are old places in Santa Clarita and people don’t want them to be bulldozed. Thus, staff prepared an ordinance that would designate certain structures as historic and, in so doing, severely limit what the owners could do to their structures. Depending on the severity of the code (which is very much in question), paint couldn’t be changed and additions would be prohibited and owners would have rather little control over what they could do with their own property, thus lowering the value of their property. (In a specific case claimed by the owner of Newhall Hardware, a real estate agent said the building would be worth north of $1,000,000 if it wasn’t listed as historic, but would only generate interest at around $400,000 if buyers were getting a structure with a historic designation).

There were a few paltry incentives, like certain fees waived and building efficiency codes reduced. And though an opt-out clause had been discussed previously, one did not appear in the language presented tonight.

Presented alongside the preservation guidelines were eight properties that were highly recommended for listing. Dave Peterson described each property and how their owners felt about being declared “historic.” It was pretty ugly.

*Newhall Ice: property owner non-responsive to City letters and one phone call (but a representative came forward later in the meeting and said the owners were opposed)
*Sheriff’s Sub-station: owner wished to be removed from the list of designated properties
*Tom Mix Cottages—property owners “neutral” to idea of listing
*Old Newhall Jail—owner wished to be removed from the list
*Melody Ranch—owners wished to be removed from the list
*California Star Oil Company/Standard House—property owner not responsive
*American Legion Hall—owner “in favor of an opt-out clause”
*Heritage Junction—SCV Historic Society was, shockingly, in favor of its structures being listed

In sum: of the eight priority properties, one owner was neutral, one was unresponsive, and five wanted off the list. The Historic Society alone didn’t mind.

Before public speakers, Councilmember Laurie Ender asked for clarification on the opt-out clause (or lack thereof). Dave Peterson said that it would give the owner a period of time to say they didn’t want to be listed, though they could change their mind later. Peterson said this was essentially synonymous with an opt-in clause, but speakers would successfully challenge that contention.

19 speakers opposed the ordinance, and four were in favor.

Speakers expressed opposition for a variety of reasons. One of the Valuzat brothers—owners of Melody Ranch—gave a heart-felt speech about all the work they put into improving their property, and about the practical reality of needing to be able to change structures on a working movie ranch. He and his brother hoped to be able to pass along the property to their six grand-children, and he said “we need that flexibility,” not a historic designation.

Several gaping flaws in the presented plan became apparent. Tim Crissman, speaking on behalf of Newhall Ice and others, said “an opt-out puts an onus on the property owner.” Indeed, he said opting-in would give owners control and allay fears that they might be listed if they miss a letter or a phone call from the City. Alan Ferdman and David Gauny noted that any property could be designated as historic once the ordinance was passed, not just the select few presented tonight. Since every property owner might be a potential victim of historic preservation, all should be notified. That’s how Katrina Issa felt. She is a homeowner who said she had not been properly noticed about historic listing and proceeded to deliver an impassioned condemnation of the whole City Council: “Shame on you! It’s shameful!”

Other speakers included Valerie Thomas, who called the plan inverse condemnation (and called out the supposed "good Republicans" sitting on the CC), and another woman who was certain this was part of a United Nations conspiracy to assume control of private property.

I think the most entertaining testimony came from historian Cynthia Harris, who spoke about standing in front of a bulldozer to save the historic Mitchell Family Adobe. Berta Gonzalez Barbier had brought up the near destruction of the adobe as evidence of the need for a historic preservation ordinance. Harris reminded her and others that it was actually the threat of historic designation that had prompted the owner to get a bulldozer, anxious as he was to avoid having his rights constrained. Indeed, Harris was one of a several history-minded Claritans who opposed the ordinance as presented.

The others who spoke in favor of the ordinance were largely drowned out by the sheer volume and fervor of speakers who wanted historic designation only if it was an opt-in process. The idea that historic structures disappear forever was brought up a number of times, but the general consensus remained unchanged.

The City Council responded. Councilmember Laurene Weste said “There are no great communities that don’t value their history.” This prefaced her case that a historic ordinance without the option of opting-out was needed. She did, however, suggest that property owners should be allowed to paint and add-on and remodel so long as they preserved the general spirit of the building, not necessarily every historic molecule of it. Mayor Pro-tem Laurie Ender wanted an opt-in clause, and she even went so far as to suggest removing the existing moratorium on construction of potentially list-able historic structures. Councilmember Ferry split the difference of these opinions, saying if a structure was of such dear historic value, it should be purchased: “If the community values it they should pay for it.” He didn’t want people opting out of saving vital historic structures, but at the same time didn’t want owners to suffer financial hardship. Councilmember Bob Kellar was also in the opt-in camp, and gave a rather refreshing argument that “Our system’s not broken.” That is, many historic structures have been preserved successfully without government intervention (e.g., those at the historic junction), and he thought purchasing structures as needed might be the best option and a means of avoiding a “bureaucratic mess.” McLean delivered the final blow to the battered ordinance, saying “I feel that we did do this backwards.” She wanted more incentives for property owners and less forced hardship for them.

There was considerable discussion, which led Frank Ferry to yell “I’m tired […] give me an opt out!” The City Manager tried to summarize the wants of the council, which included an opt-in clause (3/5 of the CC was in favor), strengthened incentives, exploration of the possibility of simply purchasing historic structures outright, and better communication with property owners. In the end, Laurene Weste proposed continuing the discussion to a date uncertain, which was about the best they could hope to do.

Go Bike Somewhere Else

During Public Participation, TimBen Boydston talked about a 9/11 event at the theater, which the City Council agreed to back with a couple grand, pretty much on the spot. This did not sit well with Mayor McLean, who had wanted Boydston to email her with specifics about matching and the like. Ferry wasn't the only one cranky at this hour.

Some people also spoke about the big tennis court and blindingly bright lights that went up in a formerly tranquil Happy Valley enclave, making for many obvious “they’re not so happy now” jokes. Trying to head off an agendized discussion of what to do about the situation, Laurie Ender begged staff to try and get the inconsiderate property owner to shield his tennis lights, lower his fence, and not try to run a tennis business in what is essentially the backyard of ten other homeowners.

And then there was Kevin Korenthal. He was upset that a trail in Placerita Canyon has been closed to mountain bikes, even though the trail (I assume he means Los Pinetos) has, since time immemorial, displayed a sign that very clearly forbids bikes. It's only now being enforced. Hearing about the closure of the trail to mountain bikes was thrilling, since I have been nearly run over by bikers on at least three occasions there, and they generally expect you to step off the trail to let them pass, and they destroyed a nice Silene californica plant that was growing on the trail. I was birdwatching there one morning and told the bikers that they weren't supposed to be biking, and all they did was make a peace sign: ugh. (Sorry for the personal anecdote.) Anyhow, Korenthal wants more mountain biking opportunities on local trails.

The meeting adjourned a little after 10. Huzzah.

[1]Here's the agenda. Look at Item 12 for some big numbers.