Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Longer Princessa, Quieter Villa, Stricter Vaping

For my November insideSCV column, I wrote about how too many of Santa Clarita's victories don't really feel like winning. Think Cemex, where every apparent triumph hasn't actually been one. Tonight was more of the same. Mobile home park renters recently secured lower annual rent increases, but now park owners are using pass-throughs to get their money in lieu of rent hikes. Villa Metro residents may succeed in driving out the noisy but legally-operating Santa Clarita Soccer Center, but only after demonstrating a hideous lack of self awareness. And vaping has been banned in most places, which would be satisfying had a vaping problem ever really existed. Tonight, many people seemed to get their way, but I'm not sure anybody actually won.
  
Performing Art

Councilmember Dante Acosta opened the meeting with prayer. (He says "awe-men" rather than "ae-men".) The flag was saluted, the introductory spiel spieled, and the agenda approved. The sole award of recognition for tonight went to ballerina Anatalia Hordov, who was one of only three Americans to have been invited to the Genee International Ballet Competition this fall. She even made it to the finals, the only American to do so. Hordov posed for a photo with Mayor McLean, an accomplished dancer in her own right, and the rest of the council.

Arts Commission Chair Patti Rasmussen spoke about arts programs that involve local schools and students. These ranged from a Cowboy Festival-inspired lesson in harmonicas to various art competitions to an artist in residence (for a week) program. Rasmussen said that she and the rest of the commission "anxiously await the findings of our arts master plan." That master plan is being completed by LA-based The Cultural Planning Group. Until then, Claritans remain all but powerless over their own art.


Rent Pass-throughs and Villa Metro "Plight"

After the update on the arts, Mayor McLean began working through a full roster of public participation. She said that if anyone needed translators (some would say she was really after interpreters), their services would be provided. Naturally, this announcement was made only in English, but things would awkwardly work themselves out in both English and Spanish over the course of the meeting.

Elaine Ballace spoke first, saying that the IRS and the City of Santa Clarita disagree without giving much in the way of background. It became apparent that she was talking about their apparent disagreement over what costs could be passed through to mobile home park renters. Ballace explained that park owners are now using pass-throughs to get residents to cover costs on everything from office furniture to computers, not just on capital improvements. She said that it was time to challenge these "greedy landowners." Another mobile home park resident agreed that pass-throughs were being used to cover questionable expenses and routine maintenance instead of major improvements. He said that it's retaliation for the recently adopted 0% floor on annual rent increases. Teresa Galvez, speaking with an interpreter, said that management is very difficult to work with at her mobile home park. Her manager doesn't answer questions or respond to complaints, she claimed, and it made for a situation where renters were paying a lot to get very little.

David Keating used his time at the microphone to complain about continuing noise issues at Villa Metro. Keating, who purchased a home directly across from a soccer field, has been deeply distressed that people play soccer on said field. He said that he and others are "subject to a lot of noise," calling the situation his "plight." "We're suffering over there, every single day," he contended. The soccer center's owner, Scott Schauer, spoke as well. After 20 years of legally running his business at the same spot, Schauer said he's ready to support construction of a sound wall or to look for a new location. Keating was pleased that the center might move, and he asked for the city to help Schauer relocate. He explained that the city is "partially at fault for his [Schauer's] disposition...being where he is." In sum, Keating knowingly bought a home next to a soccer field, hasn't liked the noise, and now feels entitled to request that city resources be used to move the field elsewhere. One hopes that the soccer center owner will make a tidy sum if he does sell his field due to pressure from Villa Metro residents. One also hopes the property will be bought by a company that manufactures car alarms or firecrackers.


Mr. Keating, who lamented having to listen to loud soccer games played near his home, may have a different definition of "suffering" than much of the world.

Other comments covered varied topics. Steve Petzold laid the groundwork for remarks he would make later in the evening about the vaping ban. He asked how items end up on the agenda, particularly ones that seem as trivial as the use of electronic cigarettes. "This is a non-issue in the City of Santa Clarita," he said, correctly. Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer rounded out public participation with their thoughts on water and chloride treatment. Ferdman brought up the issue of "redundant" reverse osmosis plants and the place of as-yet-unbuilt Newhall Ranch in Santa Clarita's waterscape. Noltemeyer was pleased that sanitation district meetings were now being held in Santa Clarita, but she said there were many more issues that needed to be resolved.


On the Menu

City Manager Ken Striplin responded first to the concerns of mobile home park residents. His reply, delivered bit by bit in English, then Spanish, amounted to "be careful what you wish for." He explained that in response to a floor of 0% on annual rent increases, changes in business practices were being made, and they seemed legal. Planning Manager Jeff Hogan explained the appeals process that residents could use to try to keep costs down. City Attorney Joe Montes said that the city's mobile home park ordinance also states the criteria for capital improvements. Ultimately, though, everyone pointed to the mobile home panel, which has much of the control over appeals, over interpreting what counts as a capital improvement, and over mediating disagreements between residents and owners.


The councilmembers offered their usual remarks about upcoming events and about past, successful events. Councilmember Dante Acosta fretted before one of his announcements. He said he felt like he was back in school, when a teacher would chastise him for chewing gum by asking if he'd brought enough for the whole class. Tonight, that "gum" was an announcement of his friend's "Welsh Cakes" business, and he regretted that he could only spotlight one of his favorite local businesses. Most would agree that a little plug at a City Council meeting won't be the big break for any business (viewership can often be counted on one hand), so his worries were probably for naught. Mayor McLean also had food on her mind during the comment period. She said that she had picked out the lunch menu for this year's State of the City Luncheon. McLean promised that it was not chicken, and she hoped people would like her choice. Her eyes sparkled mischievously and she flashed an enigmatic smile, but gave no additional hints.  

Councilmember Dante Acosta couldn't help but mention his recent commercial spot when he asked residents to support a charitable diabetes walk coming this fall.

Consent Calendar

Throughout the meeting leading up to consideration of the consent calendar, a woman had been interpreting on- and off-again for Spanish-speaking residents. She mostly just interpreted the dialogue pertaining to mobile home park rents. It had been a little cumbersome (interpretation has been handled far more smoothly in the past with headsets), and Steve Petzold made a point of this when he came to the podium to speak about Santa Clarita's vaping ban ordinance. Petzold asked for an interpreter, and the mayor asked whether there was anyone in the audience who needed Petzold's testimony to be translated from English to Spanish. Two individuals indicated that they would benefit from such a service. The interpreter moved between the front of the room and the audience as the council tried to decide whether it was better for her to speak at the microphone or to speak directly next to the Spanish-speaking attendants. Petzold would begin speaking, but he was stopped as he wasn't pausing enough to allow for translation. The whole exercise took a few minutes and flustered Mayor McLean. Petzold mostly just smiled with quiet self-satisfaction. Or exasperation. Probably both. He can be hard to read.

When he finally began speaking uninterrupted, Steve Petzold lambasted the ordinance to ban the use of electronic smoking devices. E-cigarettes or vaporizers would be treated the same as conventional cigarettes despite presenting far fewer health risks. Petzold's critique was wide-ranging and unforgiving (except it seemed OK to ban them on buses). Several others cam forward to speak against the ordinance as well. Since vaping would be allowed in shops that sold the devices, which had been a non-negotiable for owners of vaping businesses, their remarks were really aimed at diminishing the stigma around the activity. A veteran said that seven other veterans he knows have successfully switched from cigarettes to vaping, and they're the better for it. Some have dropped nicotine altogether. Speakers involved in the vaping industry or community said that vaping isn't synonymous with illegal drug use, that international health authorities have said it's a better alternative to smoking, and that it was factually wrong to say that vaping is the same as smoking.

The comments weren't terribly productive. Tonight, the ordinance was before the council for a second reading/final passage, so not much was likely to change. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if anyone would support him in allowing vaping in Santa Clarita's extensive open space network, but he found no takers. In other words, it will be illegal for a resident to use an electronic cigarette even if alone on a trail and miles from civilization. The ordinance--and all other items on the consent calendar--passed with recommended action. Those other items included installing a water monitoring well at the Valencia Library and some landscaping contracts.

Build Roads, Screw Toads

The last big item of the evening was a public hearing about plans to extend Via Princessa between Golden Valley Road and Sheldon Avenue. A final EIR and master case were up for approval. Cam Noltemeyer and Lynne Plambeck expressed their misgivings about the project. The environmental impact report concluded that, "Significant and unavoidable impacts would occur due to loss of vernal pool habitat and vernal pool-dependent species...Even with the implementation of mitigation, impacts would remain significant and unavoidable." Sensitive local vernal pool-associated species include arroyo toads, several annual wildflowers, and aquatic invertebrates. Plambeck was dismayed that protecting habitat and wildlife only seems to be a priority for the council when it can be used as a tool to stop unpopular developments, such as the landfill at Elsmere Canyon.

The City Council was supportive of the road extension. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar stated, "Folks, it is our responsibility to do what we can to take care of the human race." He said that someone told him that the top three priorities for those seeking public office should be roads, roads, and roads. Kellar closed with a lament that there are people (SCOPE members, presumably) who "oppose everything!" Councilmember TimBen Boydston gave a more cynically supportive response, stating that people weren't going to get out of their cars en masse and that a functional road infrastructure was critical. Councilmember Acosta agreed, stating that Soledad Canyon Road is gridlocked much of the time and that more big roads are needed, especially near Canyon Country. Acosta said he'd start a collection to fund the road if needed, and Kellar jokingly produced cash to make a donation. Mayor McLean was the last to express her support for the road despite its negative biological impacts. As she was explaining herself, Noltemeyer or Plambeck (or both, I didn't see) made for the exit. She scolded her/them, saying smugly, "So if you're leaving, then apparently, you don't care."

The project is far from a done deal. More work has to take place to mitigate habitat loss, some $38M in additional funds need to be secured, and the work itself will take years. But a big road that's been in the works for a while cleared its most recent major hurdle with the support of the full council.

More Villa Noise

The second round of public participation saw more speakers on Villa Metro noise and mobile home park pass-throughs. One theme of the mobile home park comments was the perceived lack of communication between managers/owners and residents. No resolution is in sight.

One speaker complained not about soccer noise but rather about train noise at Villa Metro. Recall that Villa Metro was sold/built around the idea of "easy access to Southern California's regional rail" (per the New Home Company's websites). It seems that once the soccer field has been driven out, removing trains from the train-based community may be the next goal. Such is Villa Metro.

During his comments, Ray Henry mentioned that he didn't like it when councilmembers highlighted businesses at meetings. Acosta had offered his own mini-commercial for Welsh Cakes tonight, but Bob Kellar is the usual promoter. Before the meeting ended, Kellar asked City Attorney Montes if local businesses and "restrunts" could indeed be mentioned, and Montes replied in the affirmative. The meeting ended before 9.

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