Monday, May 23, 2011

All Aboard For East Ventura

The other day, I boarded Metrolink Train 119 to return home from Downtown Los Angeles. The train was bound for a place called “East Ventura”.

Ever since Metrolink first came to Ventura a decade ago, the trains have stopped at a station in the Montalvo neighborhood, off of Victoria Avenue just north of Highway 101. This isn’t necessarily the best location in town for a Metrolink station. though it is an easy drive for 50,000 residents who live east of Victoria. But the truth of the matter is that the Montalvo rail siding was where the trains were stored overnight after they finished their run in Oxnard. So it made sense to take place where they were stored and turn it into a formal station. It’s also the starting point for a possible rail line through Santa Paula and Fillmore all the way to Santa Clarita.

The station has always been called “Montalvo”. Montalvo is a venerated neighborhood in Ventura; some of it is inside the Ventura city limits and some is not. I’ve spent a lot of time in Montalvo over the years. I’ve thrown out the first pitch in the Montalvo Little League two years in a row, and I’ve had lots of friends who live in Ventura and/or teach at Montalvo Elementary School.

So, while Montalvo is a very important neighborhood, the name really doesn’t convey a true sense of where the Ventura County Metrolink line goes. When you’re standing at Union Station in Downtown L.A. looking at the board, you see the names of the bigger cities that define Southern California: Riverside, San Bernardino, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Burbank, Glendale, Santa Clarita, Oxnard. You can take an Amtrak train to Ventura (the stop is at the Fairgrounds) but traditionally there was no way to decipher that if you got on the Montalvo train you were going anywhere near Ventura. Unless you knew where Montalvo was.

A couple of months ago, in my capacity as Chair of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I asked Metrolink to change the name of the station from “Montalvo” to “East Ventura”. That way, riders in Downtown L.A. know that they’re going to Ventura – but they also know they are not going to the “Ventura” stop on Amtrak, which of course is in a different location. Metrolink made this earlier this month. Right now, to avoid confusion, the boards at Union Station say: “East Ventura/Montalvo”.

Things still aren’t perfect, of course. Ventura is still the only City in the entire Metrolink system – 130 stops – where Amtrak and Metrolink stop in different places. I’d love to see Metrolink come downtown to the Fairgrounds, but there are quite a number of logistical difficulties. For one thing, the East Ventura stop is essentially on different rail line, so Metrolink can’t just start at the Fairgrounds, stop at East Ventura, and move on to Oxnard. In addition, the rail line is single track throughout Ventura, meaning Metrolink would have to get to the Fairgrounds and back without running into conflicts with Amtrak or freight trains run by Union Pacific (which owns the tracks).

Still, I’m hopeful. The City is just starting on a new phase of our study looking at the possibility of capping the 101 Freeway at California (the study is being paid for by the Southern California Association of Governments). We’re hopeful that if the freeway were ever capped, we could create double-tracking or a siding that would form the basis for a multi-modal transit center, where trains and buses come together in one location.

For now, I’ll take whatever small victories I can get. And taking the train to East Ventura is definitely a win.

Working Together With Our Neighborhoods

Back in the early ‘90s, a group of citizens in the neighborhood then known simply as “The Avenue” got together and decided that their neighborhood had not gotten enough attention over the years. So they formed a neighborhood organization to advocate for their community. They even gave their neighborhood a new name – the Westside – because they believed “The Avenue” had developed too many negative connotations over the years.

Almost 20 years later, the Westside Community Council is still going strong in advocating for the Westside – and over the years City Hall has responded. Most recently, we have been working on a Community Plan for the Westside area that will – after some 15 years of uncertainly – make the rules clear for new development and also identify the priorities for public investment on the Westside (if and when we have the money to make those investments).

And there are six other community councils in Ventura as well – representing Downtown, Midtown, Pierpont, the Harbor, the College District, and East Ventura. These are truly grassroots organizations.

We have great neighborhoods in Ventura, but they’ve taken a beating as we have had to reduce services in the last few years. The Community Councils help to foster neighborhood pride and engage in grassroots activity to make these neighborhoods better. I’m proud to do whatever I can to support our Community Councils and make our neighborhoods better. I meet every couple of months with the chairs of these Councils, and we are planning Ventura’s first-ever Neighborhood Summit this summer.

With the exception of the Downtown Ventura organization – created with the City’s help – these groups were formed by the people who live and work in their neighborhoods and they have crafted their own role.

For example, the Midtown Ventura Community Council often reviews and comments on pending development projects in Midtown, and it was partly because of the Community Council that Community Memorial Hospital’s large expansion project is so neighborhood-oriented and passed with so much neighborhood support.

The Pierpont Community Council has been at the forefront of the thorny sand removal issues that affect the Pierpont, and the College District Community Council was formed in response to many changes in the neighborhood, including spreading homeless issues and the loss of Wright Library. The College District organization has become an important venue for dialogue between Ventura College and surrounding neighborhoods.

None of these organizations receive a penny from the City. We do try to help them as much as possible. For example, Police Department staff often attends Community Council meetings – a vital information exchange about crime and safety issues in the neighborhoods that helps neighbors know how to stay safe and helps the police learn what problems are occurring. Our transportation engineers, parks staff, and other folks often attend the meetings as well to provide information and also stay on top of neighborhood issues.

And our Community Partnerships staff is working with the Community Councils to find private, philanthropic support for what we are calling a Neighborhood Improvements Matching Grant program. This program would allow for the City's various Community Councils to apply for matching grants to fund improvement projects in their districts. This would be a huge step forward in helping our neighborhoods help themselves to become better – and protect the neighborhoods that everyone in town loves.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thank You, Nick Haverland ... We Will Always Miss You

Fifteen or so years ago, when we decided to have some work done on our house, a contractor named Jim Haverland showed up to do the work. Jim was a friend of a friend. He turned out to be a terrific fellow – smart, knowledgeable, kind, low-key – and he and his wonderful wife Susan soon became our friends as well. Susan had a demanding corporate job in those days, so Jim took care of their boys. All summer he came to our house with Nick and Griff, then about 6 and 4, in tow. Every day they played in the yard with our daughter Sara, who was the same age as Nick, and they always played the same games. Hide and seek, because what little girl doesn’t want to be chased around by two little boys? And bug-hunting, because that’s what Nick loved to do.

Over the years, the Haverlands became a permanent part of my life – one of those Ventura families you know fifteen different ways, through school and play activities and work and civic events. We remained friends through so many changes – the kids growing up, a divorce on our side, the tragic early death of siblings on both sides. After a while I became friends with a lot of parents from the Open Classroom School on the Blanche Reynolds Elementary School campus and in so doing met a much wider range of Jim and Susan’s friends, because Nick and Griff had both been Open Classroom students. My daughter Sara and Nick were one year apart at Foothill Technology High School.

Jim still did contracting work for my former wife. Susan eventually left her corporate job and moved into community service jobs that brought she and I closer together in our professional lives. For several years she ran the Mixteco Project, aiding Oaxacan immigrants around the County. More recently she ran the County’s farmworker vanpooling project, and only about two weeks ago we had a meeting in the Mayor’s office to discuss how things were going. I brought her up to date on Sara, and she brought me up to date on the boys. Griff was almost done with high school and would be going to UC Santa Cruz. Nick – a personable boy whom everybody loved – was almost done with Ventura College and was planning to study ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in the fall. He still loved hunting bugs.

Everybody in Ventura now knows what happened to Nick Haverland Wednesday evening. Riding his bicycle with a friend along Telegraph Road in East Ventura, he was stuck by a car and killed. They were headed to a night class at Ventura College. When Nick was hit, the driver had already hit two other bicyclists and a car. Adding to the tragedy was the fact that the driver – who has pleaded not guilty to a charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – was only a few blocks from his own house when the accident happened.

Nick Haverland’s death has affected our community more deeply and profoundly than I would have imagined. Everybody has been talking about it and everybody, it seems, feels touched by it. I have lived through a number of tragedies in Ventura – the killing of of 21-year-old Jesse Strobel in Midtown in 1993, for example, and the crash of the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 into the ocean near Anacapa Island in 2000 – but I have never seen an outpouring like this.

Even before the accident scene was cleared, the news about Nick flew around town, mostly by Facebook postings and by texts. The intersection of Telegraph and Mara, a typical suburban landscape near Juanamaria School, quickly became a shrine with flowers and candles and a white “ghost bike” memorial. On Thursday morning when I went to Poinsettia School to talk to fifth graders about what it’s like to be mayor, mostly they wanted to talk about Nick’s accident. Many of them had actually seen it occur, and many more had seen the news helicopters over their house. When Jim and Susan visited the scene a day or two after the accident, a Gold Coast bus made an unscheduled stop. Recognizing Jim and Susan as Nick's parents, the bus driver jumped out and hugged them and all the passengers prayed for them.

As a typical guy, I “under-emoted” in the moment on Wednesday night, not sure what to feel or how to feel it. By Thursday, I was beginning to feel weighted down by grief. And by Friday, when I drove past the scene for the first time, as Mayor I began to wonder how we as a community could possibly find the right way to grieve this loss.

There are a lot of reasons why Nick Haverland’s death hit home with so many people around town. The first, of course, is the Haverland family – a great family that everybody seemed to have a connection to, the kind of family, as I said, that you seem to know fifteen different ways. The second was the public nature of the accident. Nick was struck at quarter to seven on a beautiful May evening when it was still light out, close to Juanamaria School and the Albertson’s shopping center. Lots of people were out and about, and I am astonished at the number of people – and children – who actually witnessed the event or ran to the scene immediately after it happened. And finally, of course, was the nature of the incident – an apparently intoxicated driver who struck three bicyclists and one car in three different incidents in his own neighborhood, and who refused to – or couldn’t – get out of his car when the police confronted him. It is not just Jim and Susan and Griff and their friends who will have to grieve. So will the entire neighborhood and even our entire community.

On Friday I went about my normal mayoral duties – chairing the monthly meeting of the County Transportation Commission in Camarillo, welcoming the state convention of the League of Women Voters to the Crowne Plaza, and attending the Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo at the Four Points Sheraton. Even so, it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do as Jim and Susan’s friend to ease their pain (or mine, which was obviously nothing compared to theirs but still hurt a lot) and it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do as Mayor to help the community grieve.

Then on Saturday, as I went on my mayoral rounds, I saw some amazing things that reminded me what a remarkable community we have – and how this remarkable community can pull together when people like the Haverlands need it. First I went to the American Cancer Society “Relay For Life” event at Buena High School, where dozens of teams and hundreds of people had congregated for a 24-hour fundraising walk to “fight back” against cancer. This is a national event, but it annually raises more than $200,000 – that’s right, $200,000 – in Ventura alone. Then I went to Barranca Vista Park, where hundreds of families and dozens of vendors were out for the spring “Family Festival”. Then I went to Harbor Cove Beach down at the Harbor, where Ventura County squeaked out a first-ever victory over Amgen in the Corporate Games. And then I went to Jim and Susan’s house.

We complain all the time about things we don’t like here in Ventura – we have too much growth or not enough; there aren’t enough police officers or we pay the police officers too much; there isn’t enough parking downtown or we hate the damned parking meters. But none of that matters very much compared to what we have. Most towns can’t do what we do every day, on a regular basis, in Ventura. Most towns can’t raise $200,000 in one day for to fight cancer. Most towns can’t put on a six-week corporate games event that draws dozens of teams from other cities, costs $700,000 to run, and yet pays for itself. And most towns can’t successfully pull together around even a beloved family like the Haverlands to help the family – and the community – grieve such an enormous loss.

Yet Ventura can. It is this cohesiveness, this love, this sense of hometown-ness even in a city of more than 100,000 people, that makes our town special. As I made my rounds on Saturday, I finally began to feel that, as Mayor, I was doing what I should be doing to help our community grieve – and to honor the memory of Nick, such a wonderful kid and one whom practically everybody in Ventura loved. I was moving through a Saturday in Ventura both typical and extraordinary, participating in life-affirming acts all over town that sometimes seem routine to me but, in truth, are anything but.

When I finally got to Jim and Susan’s house late Saturday afternoon, I was, as always, amazed by their love and their energy. A few other friends were there. They are obviously devastated by their loss and very emotional, yet they remain focused on the positive and truly caring for their friends, who obviously are hurting far less than they are.

One of the reasons I always connected with Jim and Susan is that we were part of a cohort of folks who moved to Ventura back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for the specific purpose of raising our kids in a town with a high quality of life and a strong sense of community. We mostly didn’t know each other in advance, nor did we know a whole lot about Ventura when we arrived. But we all had the same sense of Ventura: It seemed like a town with a real sense of centeredness, a town that could sustain us, not just financially and socially but emotionally, through good times and bad. And as we connected with each other over the years, we did our best to contribute to this sense of what might be called emotional sustainability.

Yes, we had jobs and ran businesses, mostly right here in town. And, yes, we coached soccer teams and worked on PTO boards and started nonprofits and, in at least one case, ran for the City Council. But we also tried our best to care for each other and our community. I guess you could call this “giving back,” but the truth of the matter is that we never really thought of it that way, because there was really no difference between “giving back” and just living our lives. It was all part of being Venturans.

Late Saturday afternoon, as Susan and I leaned against the refrigerator in the Haverlands’ kitchen – a refrigerator filled with the usual photos and notes and schedules – it dawned on us both that this remarkable townwide quality had emerged even in the most devastating, tragic moment imaginable.

The circumstances of Nick’s death unfortunately meant that Jim and Susan’s grief was not completely private. They had spent several hours at the scene on Telegraph Road Wednesday night with television helicopters roaring overhead, and a photograph of the two of them embracing was published in the Star on Thursday morning (though they were not identified in the photo).

You could interpret this lack of privacy as intrusive in the most private of moments. Yet, as it turned out, these public circumstances allowed Ventura to rally around the Haverlands in a way that they – and I – could never have imagined. It has brought their friends together around them, and it has even brought many people whom they don’t even know into their lives with a love and caring that they never imagined. It has even brought me closer to many people I love – not just Jim and Susan, but also my former wife, the wonderful graphic designer Vicki Torf, and other dear friends like Rosie Ornelas and Steve Svete and Mindy Lawrence and many others who developed close ties over the years to the Haverlands and to each other.

We were right all those years ago when we moved to Ventura. It is a place that can help us and hold us and heal us, not just economically or socially but emotionally. In that sense, it is the most sustainable of cities.

It is the greatest of tragedies, of course, that it took the death of a wonderful young kid like Nick Haverland to remind of us all this. After all, Nick reminded us of it every day just by being himself. And I am still worried about how our community will complete the grieving process. I am worried about the kids at Foothill, who knew so many people involved in the incident. I am worried about the kids at Juanamaria Elementary School, whose families witnessed and heard the incident and assisted our first responders. And I am worried about Jim and Susan and Griff, who will have to live with this tragic loss for the rest of their lives.

But I know our community will continue to come together with the Haverlands to grieve for the family and for themselves. Jim and Susan and Griff are planning a celebration of Nick’s life sometime in the near future. I’m not sure where or when yet, but I will be there, as both friend and Mayor, to help the Haverlands and our community at large in the grieving process – so that we can honor Nick as he deserves to be honored, and we can once again rely upon and renew Ventura as a place capable of sustaining us all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Unpermitted Second Units: A Big Step Forward

On Monday night, the City Council took a major step forward – at last – toward legalizing “second dwelling units” that provide safe housing for their inhabitants but do not have city permits. In approving the second unit ordinances, we have at last provided a path for owners of unpermitted second units to comply with our city code and become, to use an awkward term, “legal”.

This has not been an easy process and not everyone is completely happy with the outcome. I’ll get to some of those details a little later. But the important point is this: Previously, there was no way for the owner of an unpermitted second unit to legalize their situation unless they went through an expensive and time-consuming process. Now it will be much easier.

The issue of unpermitted second units is not widespread, but obviously it is very important for those involved – and for the community at large. A second unit can provide a dignified place to live for an elderly or disabled relative or for an adult child who is ready to move out of the house. It can also provide an important source of income for people struggling to make the mortgage. These second units effectively expand our housing supply without really increasing our density.

All older cities have lots of unpermitted second units, and Ventura’s problem may not be as widespread as you might think. In 2009, when we conducted an experiment in “pro-active” code enforcement for a few months, we found that – even in the older neighborhoods – only about 2-3% of properties have unpermitted second units. In other older cities where I have lived, practically every property had unpermitted units.

The issue with unpermitted second units is safety. True, an unpermitted second unit might be a cozy 90-year-old carriage house that was built before zoning codes were even invented and has modern and safe electrical and plumbing systems. An unpermitted second unit might also be a garage that’s been rigged into a makeshift living unit, with refrigerator and microwave hooked up through extension cords and a toilet that discharges into the ground. The trick is recognizing – and acknowledging – the difference. And, of course, there’s a delicate balance between providing fair processes for people involved in a code enforcement action and protecting the vast majority of Ventura residents who go out of their way to abide by the codes and expect their neighbors to as well.

About 18 months ago we appointed the “Safe Housing Collaborative,” a group of 13 citizens who were asked to involve the public in ways to improve the code enforcement process. They came back to us in February with a set of recommendations, and the ordinance adopted Monday was the result of direction we gave our staff at that time.

The second unit ordinance we adopted Tuesday night represents an important stride forward. In order to qualify, a property owner needs to produce at least one piece of documentation – and, in the case of what might be called “indirect’ evidence, two pieces. For example, an old assessor’s record acknowledging the unit’s existence will suffice. Similarly, if you have a rent receipt and a utility bill, those two would suffice as well. You can substitute an owner’s affidavit for one of the two pieces of “indirect” evidence.

You will, of course, have to comply with our building code; if you disagree with the determination of our Building Official, Andrew Stuffler, you’ll be able to appeal that decision to the Local Appeals Board, which under state law is the body that hears appeals from Andrew’s decision. If your unpermitted second unit went into service before 1987, you won’t have to worry about complying with our zoning ordinance. If the unit went into service after 1987 – the year the state began to require disclosure of unpermitted second units in property transactions – then, in theory, you’ll have to comply with our zoning rules for second units (setbacks, parking, and so forth). But you’ll be able to seek a kind of a variance from our Community Development Director, Jeff Lambert – the ordinances instructs him to grant variances liberally – and if you don’t like his decision you can appeal it just like a regular variance.

Finally, if it turns out you have to pay hefty fees to legalize your unit – which is unlikely in most cases but possible in some -- we’ve instructed the staff to look into the possibility of having the City provide financing for the payments.

Our new effort includes a couple of other, more general approaches that should make it easier for people to deal with code enforcement issues.

One is the “self-inspection” program, which will permit applicants working with their contractors to have a private inspector certify that a water heater or other small item complies with the code. (Improperly installed, water heaters can be big safety problems; but we’re trying to make getting permits less expensive.) The second is an expanded volunteer program, which will help our code enforcement folks resolve issues more quickly and also help permit applicants through the process.

Not everybody agreed with the decision we made on every single issue. Many of the Safe Housing Collaborative members came to meeting and asked us to make a number of changes from the staff recommendation. Some we did (a zoning appeals process, a financing program) and some we didn’t (eliminating the 1987 cutoff date). A few people were unhappy with the outcome, but I think it’s fair to say that most were not.

Most everybody understands that we’ve made it code enforcement easier – especially legalizing unpermitted second units – and that this is a good start. And, like any new ordinance, this one is a bit of an experiment. We’ll monitor it to see how it goes and make changes if they’re warranted. But there was no point in delaying the ordinance because there was still disagreement about some issues.

As the old saying goes, you shouldn’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good. And the truth of the matter is that if you have an unpermitted second unit that poses no safety hazard, it will be easier to legalize your unit than it used to be. I’d say that’s good, even if the ordinance isn’t perfect.