Follow through on area planning

Lisa D. Ross
ROSS is a writer and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

05-Jun-1997 Thursday

When Lynn Greene bought her Carmel Valley dream home six years ago, her
sales agent promised a first-class planned community with all the
amenities: neighborhood schools, safe streets, natural open space and
recreational opportunities for her kids. He also promised that a
neighborhood park would replace the five-acre patch of parched weeds behind
her house.

But veteran homeowners in Carmel Valley could have told the Greene family
that sales pitches rarely match reality in San Diego's model master planned
community. For them, the past 15 years have been marked by disappointments
and often loud, acrimonious fights with city officials over funding for the
staples of a livable community. The woeful Carmel Valley Facilities Benefit
Assessment story might serve as a cautionary tale for facility finance
planners working on future master planned communities in San Diego.

At the center of the storm is the funding mechanism for infrastructure and
amenities in new San Diego communities like Carmel Valley called the FBA
fund. Each year, faced with FBA funding shortages, the Carmel Valley
Planning Board engages in the painful process of recommending project
priorities to the City Council, knowing its decision will delay an array of
projects that were promised in Carmel Valley's master plan.

Such is the case with the Greenes' neighborhood park. Originally slated for
construction in the early '90s, the park won't see green until 2001. The
reason for the delay is at the heart of the problem with the FBA mechanism.

Faced with Proposition 13 tax cuts, the framers of San Diego's Progress
Guide and General Plan in 1979 began with the principle that new
development must pay for its own facilities. Unlike Carlsbad, which
required builders to put in facilities before development, San Diego's plan
required developers to pay a per-unit or per-acre fee when filing for a
permit based on the number and type of facilities required by the general
plan, the costs, the rate of development and the type of land use, such as
single-family, multi-family or commercial. Developers could pass the cost
on to the buyer.

But, the framers did not allow for any front-loading in the fund, which
means the FBA is a pay-as-you-go scheme with no capitalization. Any
downturn in the economy causes a lag in facility construction because
permitting slows. And real families who already paid their share for
facilities in the cost of their homes can see a child go from cradle to
college without setting foot in a community park. Such is the case in
Carmel Valley.

Financing planners also did not understand that the costs for land
acquisition and facility construction once development has begun would be
astronomical. Land price-tags, which appear to go unquestioned by city
officials, are determined when an applicant files a tentative map with the
city, usually during times when land prices are soaring. And the hidden
bureaucratic costs in city-run construction projects produce the $100,000
potties and $25,000 signs that make taxpayers revolt because they know that
private developers could get the job done quicker and much cheaper.

For example, the city has the FBA spending about $500,000 an acre for park
land in Carmel Valley since a 1989 purchase of a 17-acre community park
site. So the Greenes' neighborhood park will cost $2.5 million simply for
raw land. And city officials want the FBA to buy a site for a future police
station for $2 million this year. Although conveniently located across from
Krispy Donuts, the gold-plated facility wouldn't open for at least 10 years
and the cost would push park construction into the next century.

Finally, FBA planners never considered the city manager's habit of grabbing
spare change from funds languishing in city coffers for more than a few
days. Several years ago, Carmel Valley Planning Board Chairman John Dean
discovered that the city burdened the FBA with a $23 million debt to fund
Route 56, a regional freeway. Without the ensuing well-publicized protest,
Carmel Valley residents would have been cruising Route 56 for years before
they saw their parks and schools built.

And so, Lynn Greene's neighborhood park and an elementary school's playing
fields wait in a queue of projects that the Planning Board has reviewed for
at least a decade, which have included water lines, roads and a library.
Today, at the top of the list are longstanding promises made to this
community by successive boards: a central recreational park and joint-use
facilities for a new elementary school.

Communities should not have to choose among recreational facilities,
schools and cops when they pay mightily for them. While city staff assure
the Carmel Valley Planning Board year after year that the FBA is solvent
and will show a surplus when the community is finally built out, facilities
continue to lag well behind need. And, given the arcane bookkeeping system,
watching the bouncing dimes would befuddle Arthur Anderson himself.

Mayor Susan Golding should establish an independent commission made up of
facility finance planners, community planning board representatives,
accounting auditors and developer representatives to review the FBA process
before new master-planned communities come on-line.

Families like the Greenes deserve assurance that San Diego's community
facilities financing system is not another shifty sales promise.

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.