Builder calls landscape & lighting district fee a ‘money grab’

Builder calls landscape & lighting district fee a ‘money grab’By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

A local builder called city staff and its consultants to task last week regarding what he said were unfair assessments on his in-progress housing development.

The Ridgecrest City Council approved a public hearing to form a Landscaping and Lighting District for IWV Construction’s housing development on the south side of West Drummond Avenue between Downs and Inyo streets. While Chuck Roulund, IWV Construction owner and the sole entity subject to the district, voted in favor of the assessment, it wasn’t until after more than an hour and a half of sometimes-heated public discussion.

Cities form landscape and lighting districts to collect assessments on property tax rolls to offset city maintenance costs. The city establishes a maximum threshold, and unused money goes into a reserve fund, giving the city the option to lower the assessment in the future.

Roulund presented information from two of his tracts – Tract 7188 which was approved in recent months and 6908 which was awaiting approval. Tract 7188 was assessed $2,744 for street lights at $211 per light while 6908 was assessed only $1,120 for lights at only $112 per light. Tract 7188 showed $372 for maintaining 7,460 square feet of decomposed granite landscaping and tract 6908 showed nearly $3,500 for 5,775 square feet of similar landscaping.

Fees for lighting rehabilitation and administration were also much higher for tract 7188, but the total assessment for each came out to be roughly the same. Roulund said the difference in figures seemed arbitrary. “Which one is correct?” he asked.

“It doesn’t make any difference how the numbers get distributed really,” said Willdan Principal Consultant Jim McGuire, who phoned in to participate in the meeting. “The assessment is $152 per benefit unit, which is under the maximum. You can’t look at all the different budget numbers because they’re calculated on different things.”

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens seconded the “significant variance” between the 7188 and 6908 tracts which are relatively similar in many respects.

Roulund said that the consultant was just “throwing numbers at” the assessment until it came close to $150 per unit, which he said is an industry standard.

City Manager Ron Strand said these assessments and reserves are what prevented the city from dipping into the general fund. But Roulund said the city doesn’t get around to maintaining his tract; he does it himself.

“Go look at Walmart; it’s the worst district,” said Roulund. “We lost 70 percent of the plant live, we’ve got tumbleweeds that are four feet tall. That’s a special assessment – we’re charging Walmart and all those taxpayers money to maintain it, and it’s not being maintained … it’s a money grab.”

“This causes a lot of mistrust,” said Stephens. “I think we need consistency. We’re paying a lot of money for these reports … that seem to be very inconsistent. We’re charging for lighting rehabilitation and renovation when the lights aren’t even ours anymore – they’re signed over to Southern California Edison, and they take care of the lights.”

McGuire said his comments about the cost distribution were “misconstrued” and that all numbers were calculated based on square footage and expected landscaping. He said they could take out the costs for trees, landscaping and irrigation, but the methodology for assessment would change. But he said the assessment would still come out close to $150.

“It’s not as simple as you make it all out to be,” he said.

“All I hear is that you want to make sure you get this dollar amount,” said Stephens. “I question your methodology in general. How do you even come up with these numbers? Because they’re all over the place.”

McGuire said he was directed by staff to base his report on the district requiring landscaping and irrigation – as per the conditions on a tract’s approval by the city’s Planning Commission. City staff later approved a revised plan, substituting decomposing granite for landscaping, but that information never made it into the report.

Stephens and Vice Mayor Wallace Martin, who also phoned into the meeting, voted “no” on moving forward with the public hearing, but the item passed 3-2. Before the council continued to the formal hearing portion and final vote, Martin asked if there was a way to remove the landscaping requirements and bring the approval back to a future meeting.

“We’re trying to help the developers. The city council was sent a very definitive and very strong message several months ago,” said Martin, referring to recent pushback from several developers. “I for one listened,and we want to try to help the developers and small businesses to the best of our ability.”

But staff said any further delays would require the assessment to be hand-billed, increasing costs. “If we table this it will cost Mr. Roulund more money,” said Stephens. “We’ve backed him into a corner.”

Roulund ultimately accepted the terms, and council approved the final form 4-1, with Stephens casting the dissenting vote.

Pictured: IWV Construction Owner Chuck Roulund argues at last week’s City Council Meeting for a more consistent methodology for landscape and lighting assessment districts on new developments — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-07-26