City to address development concerns

Response from City Council evokes suspicion of Brown Act violation

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

City to address development concernsCity Manager Ron Strand moved his routine report to the Ridgecrest City Council to the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting to announce a special meeting at City Hall to address concerns about city processes raised by developers in the community.

Strand said that on Wednesday, April 24, at 6 p.m., the city will address “allegations” made by the hospital. Last week, the News Review published an account from Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver, who said that shifting directives from the city had beleaguered efforts to expand its emergency department — ultimately jeopardizing completion without cost overruns that threaten overall hospital operations.

Strand countered on Wednesday that hospital officials were not forthcoming with information, including about the need to create a flight path and plan for the emergency helicopter that transports patients in need of a trauma center.

He said that the hospital first expressed that need during a Planning Commission meeting in 2018 and since then has given the city no information.

Strand further reported that when the city reached out to the FAA, the city received a conceptual plan that clearly showed the flight plan does not conflict with the hotel planned for development next to the hospital property.

During the News Review interview with Suver, he noted that the flight path clearance is only three feet under ideal weather conditions, and hampered when winds occur. Any properties developed on the frontage of China Lake Boulevard could also potentially be in conflict with the flight path, he said.

Suver also showed this reporter an email from RRH consultants to city staff explaining the new flight path, as well as the risks of future development blocking that path. City staff indicated to the RRH consultant that the city had existing height restrictions in place that would protect the planned flight path without RRH having to take additional steps.

In the past few months, scores of builders and developers have expressed their frustrations about inconsistent city polices and procedures that inhibit growth. Some have abandoned projects before completion.

Among pertinent concerns are the recent personnel changes at the levels of city manager, planner, economic development director, public works director and other associated positions — which yield conflicting responses, depending on when and to whom questions are directed.

Scott O’Neil, executive director of the IWV Economic Development Corp., approached the city four weeks ago and presented City Council with a list of concerns that the EDC and Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors have gathered from developers.

“I also identified some ways forward and committed the EDC to actively support any city initiative to remedy these issues.”

O’Neil said he received his first response a month after initially raising concerns when Council-member Lindsey Stephens contacted him. She said that she was leading the Economic Development Committee on a draft guide to articulate the city’s planning and development processes and that she heard that the EDC and RAAR were working on a similar guide.

“I confirmed we were, but we have included many local developers and business owners on our team,” said O’Neil. “We have decided to join forces. This is good. I shared that my intent on suggesting a guide be created was not the guide itself, but rather that it would serve to highlight many deficiencies in the city’s planning and public works processes and that, hopefully, would prompt the city to further action. The guide addresses only the symptoms of a bigger issue, not the underlying problem of broken and outdated processes.”

O’Neil said that Stephens shared a concern that the issue had put the community in conflict, and that efforts to recall councilmembers had begun circulating.

“I, too, have heard similar things,” said O’Neil. He said he also heard rumors that he’s being paid by builders to represent their interests.

“I am not. The EDC is about economic development in our community. That’s what I am about and for, and if I witness obstacles to that end, then I think I have a duty to the EDC membership, our board of directors and our community to speak up.”

He said he is also grateful to the attention to the issue in local newspapers. “This is the tried and true way America holds its elected official accountable,” said O’Neil.

“If the city doesn’t like the message, then I recommend the city take the initiative — put a plan together to remedy these issues and publish it.” He then called on the city to give regular updates to the community that informs the public of the progress. “The city council and staff needs to be accountable to the public on this.”

“We are acting on your suggestions,” said Councilmember Wallace Martin. “We are working to get this done.” He acknowledged that the city is “sorely remiss” in not having a web presence that details information on the city’s permitting process.

Martin pointed out that Bakersfield — which has recently attracted high-profile businesses such as Amazon and L’Oreal Paris — might be a model for the city for more effective business practices.

From the public microphone, Mike Neel observed that as soon as O’Neil brought up his concerns, city officials responded with the actions they are taking to course correct.

Neel said he is concerned that the city was illegally having policy discussions behind the scenes, rather than in the public purview, as the law dictates. “If that conversation is happening between more than one or two of you, that’s a violation of the Brown Act.”

Pictured: IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil during Wednesday’s Ridgecrest City Council meeting — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-04-19