Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Getting the Parks, Getting the Schools

The City Council returned from our summer recess Monday night (9-10), and took one very important action: We increased our city’s standard for the amount of parkland that residential developers must provide. This action will allow the staff to increase the fees charged to developers who don’t provide parks on-site.

And it lays the groundwork for some important decisions in the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan and the several pending specific plans in that area – most specifically, where do we put parks and schools in Saticoy & Wells and how do we pay for them?

For almost 25 years, our park standard has been 3.5 acres per 1,000 residents. On Monday night we increased that standard to 4.78 acres per 1,000 residents – an increase of about a third.

Some developers provide parks onsite, while others – especially those with smaller projects and smaller parcels of land.—often pay a fee instead. The new park standard will allow the staff to increase the fees as well. On single-family subdivisions of 50 units or fewer, our fee has been about $600 per house in most of the city and about $2,200 per house in Montalvo, Thille, and Saticoy & Wells, where park deficiencies have been identified. The new park standard will allow the staff to increase the fee to about $3,050 per house everywhere in the city. This fee is based on the assumption that parkland costs about $250,000 an acre to buy. (The fee for projects of more than 50 units not uniform citywide but, rather, must be based on an appraisal of the particular property in question.)

To give you an idea of what this means: Up to now, a developer of a 50-unit subdivision in most parts of the city was paying $30,000 in park fees (about enough to purchase one 50x100-foot lot), and a similar project in Thille, Montalvo, and Saticoy & Wells was paying $110,000. All such projects will now pay about $150,000.

The idea behind increasing the fees is not just to raise revenue, but also to encourage developers to provide parks on-site rather than just paying money. This is, frankly, a tricky balance. Small developers will usually opt to pay a fee and the city should encourage this, because we often need bigger parks than small developers can provide. Larger developers are more likely to provide land rather than pay a fee, but if the fee is too low they will buy their way out of their obligation, which raises the question of where the park will actually be located. A higher fee will mean developers are more likely to provide land on-site.

Another issue that was raised Monday night was the question of small parks – mini-parks. Increasingly, we are seeing developers propose subdivisions with many small parks, and they are asking that these parks count toward the park acreage requirement. Many small parks can often be a good thing, but you always have to be careful. Developers sometimes will try to have the city classify small bits of leftover land as “parks,” whether or not they can really be used.

The whole park acreage standard – and the park fees – have important implications for the Saticoy & Wells area. This is currently the only part of the city where lots of subdivisions are pending, and we are trying to deal with broader issues in the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan.

On Monday night, Dan Cormode of the East Ventura Community Council quite rightly pointed out that we might wind up with lots of developer fees earmarked to buy land for parks and schools in Saticoy & Wells – but with no land in Saticoy & Wells to buy, because all the developers have chosen to pay the fees rather than contribute land. (Developer fees for schools are set by the state, but the city and the school district can seek additional land and fees for schools by working together – which we are not doing.)

This is one of the main reasons I advocated for the creation of the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan in the first place. We need to make sure that, as the Saticoy & Wells area gets built out, we have decided where parks, schools, and other community facilities are going to be located – and we know how they are going to be paid for.

Does this mean that our East End developers may have to do more than just pay their fees and build their projects? Probably. More than likely, they are going to have to work together with the city, the school district, and each other to make sure that the land is set aside in Saticoy & Wells for schools and parks, and that money is available to build those facilities. Some developers will be able to pay fees. Some will have to contribute land. In some cases, we may see a combination. For example, Developer A may have to cut the number of houses in his plan in order to accommodate parks and schools – but may be compensated by the city or by Developer B (who’s paying money rather than providing land) for the loss.

Are these tough choices? Sure. Do the developers – or even the city or the school district – like to face up to these tough choices? Not always. But when you’re trying to do the best job you can in building out a community like Saticoy & Wells, these are the kinds of tradeoffs and tough choices that you have to deal with in order to succeed. That’s what community planning is all about.

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