Photo: 9/12/2013 La Habra Heights City Council discussing appeal to City's Conditional Use Permit.

City Hall Expansion Halted Amid Talk of Disincorporation of City.

September 14, 2013

Exclusive!

La Habra Heights, CA - A last minute appeal has been filed by this publication forcing a review of the City’s self-issued Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to expand City Hall on the grounds it violated the City’s own municipal code.

The City staff had originally sought to exempt the City from filing a CUP, but was ultimately required to do so since a portion of the current building is too close in proximity to an adjacent school building.  As a result, the City’s project was exposed to greater scrutiny, which the City had sought to avoid.

The project adds 1,500 square feet to City Hall by eliminating parking and enclosing public walkways.  Part of the expansion project includes remodeling City offices for its 9 full time employees. This involves asbestos remediation, re-roofing and updates to the electrical system.  The project would also seize the Fire Department’s training and briefing room to allow for larger City staff offices. The project is expected to cost between $2.4-$3 million including design fees.

Up until August the City was able to push though much of the project without public input or review, other than what was provided by the Renovation Committee.  The committee was created without public notice shortly after a failed Road Tax assessment in 2012.   The City-established and controlled 'Renovation Committee' consists of community members who were selected by and serve under City Manager Shauna Clark’s direction.   The Committee did not meet in public, didn’t provide minutes of actions taken, nor were the meetings recorded.  It remains unclear how many members make up the committee.  What is known is that Planning Commissioner Ray Fernandez is among them.

On August 27, 2013, a Special Meeting of the Planning Commission was held. Among the items on the agenda was the City’s request for a Conditional Use Permit for the City Hall Expansion Project. During the hearing, Commissioner Ray Fernandez failed to recuse himself from the proceedings despite sitting on the City’s Renovation Committee. Instead Fernandez chose to go after LaHabraHeights.net Editor Stephen Blagden who provided testimony at the public hearing regarding safety issues with the project.  Fernandez stated Blagden was a "naysayer" and had become “The La Habra Heights Cry Baby”.

Commissioner Greg Steffler stated, “we are not here to decide whether it’s wise to do what’s being done, that’s the Council’s jurisdiction…”  From his standpoint “we’re improving the safety of the overall product/project and that’s always a good thing, we’re not changing the footprint of the physical product”.   It should be noted that the City’s Planning Commissioners are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the City Council.

The Commission spent less than 20 minutes taking testimony and deliberation at the Public Hearing, finding the City’s filing for a CUP to be legal as submitted.

The decision surprised many since the City’s project eliminated the need for fire sprinklers in a public building.  The building is immediately adjacent to a school, as well as a dormitory that houses the City’s Fire Department personnel.  Fire sprinklers were included in the original scope of work but were removed by Ms. Clark.  Her decision was subsequently brought before the City Council and, despite public testimony by firefighters asking that fire sprinklers be mandated; Ms. Clark’s decision was upheld.

An appeal of the City’s CUP application must be based on errors and abuse of discretion by staff and the Planning Commission. What is not part of the appeal is the policy to fund the project.  Ever since the project was approved by a 3-2 vote by the City Council back in February 2013, questions have been raised as to whether the City can afford to spend upwards of half its reserves on the project.  According to two council members, the City cannot.

Former Councilman Carl Westerhoff and Councilman Roy Francis both voted against the project because the City lacked the unencumbered financial reserve to move forward.  Francis felt the project was too expensive.  Instead he supports a much more fiscally responsible approach that would limit the project to needed repairs totaling less than $200,000, which is consistent with a Facility Assessment Study commissioned by the City in October 2011.  The recommendation of the Study was to address the structural deficiencies and immediate remediation of critical problems. The Study indicated the most immediate issue was replacement of the roof of the City Hall building at a cost of $84,000.  They went on to recommend additional improvements both to City Hall buildings and the Park gymnasium totaling approximately $900,000 (adjusted for inflation) spanning over a 10 year period, with completion of the project by 2021.  The Study never recommended expansion or remodeling.

What alarmed most of those present at the February 14th City Council meeting is a statement to the community by Councilman Westerhoff, which raised serious concerns the City may be facing disincorporation. Westerhoff stated, “You don’t really have 5 million dollars in reserves.  We do not have enough revenue to sustain the City and provide its services”.  He went on to say the City is in a negative operating position.  He stated the City needs to find a way for people to pay additional assessments or face becoming an unincorporated community of Los Angeles County. “There is no secret source of revenue.” Despite voting no on the project he supported the investment in the existing city owned buildings since he feels the County would not spend any money to make improvements. And with disincorporation the County would then be responsible for road repairs, fire protection and law enforcement, so why use reserves to fund those services.

During Westerhoff’s statement he confirmed the City was facing a previously undisclosed financial liability between $2-$3 million in CalPers employee pensions. Adding in the $2.4-$3 million the City seeks to spend on the expansion, results in a negative balance and could force the City into bankruptcy.

At the present time, Mayor Roy Francis supports a ‘Call for Review’ (the City Council’s appeal process) of the Planning Commission’s decision to grant the City’s CUP, but failed to gain support from one of the four other members of the City Council.

The City Council is expected to hold a Special Meeting on Tuesday September 17th to discuss how it will conduct the appeal.

Video: 2.14.2013 Councilman Carl Westerhoff talks about City's path towards disincorporation

Update: Link: City Schedules Special Meeting on 9/17/13 at 7 PM to address appeal

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