Council sends lighting dist. back to committee

Council sends lighting dist. back to committeeBy LAURA LEIGH MONTEREY

News Review Correspondent

Despite numerous attempts to put the lighting and landscaping ordinance to bed, the topic refuses to go quietly. Issues involving fairness to taxpayers, builders and the city continue to pull these interested parties together to discuss the best way forward.

The city approved a handful of landscape and lighting districts earlier this year, but not without a lengthly, contentious dialog between developers and the city. One assurance the city provided was that it would take a hard look to make sure districts were being assessed fairly to prevent future conflict.

After discussion in the Ridgecrest City Council’s Infrastructure Committee, the topic of lighting and landscaping districts returned to the full Ridgecrest City Council last Wednesday for discussion and direction. Councilmembers again wrestled mightily with costs, billing, fairness and business incentives.

In his presentation, Bard Lower, public works director for the city, began with an explanation of why lighting and landscaping districts exist in the first place. He refreshed the council on Ridgecrest Municipal Code 19-2.3, which covers subdivision design requirements, including details on maintenance districts.

The code states: “The subdivider shall provide for a maintenance district to cover the cost of operating and maintaining any street lighting within or adjacent to the subdivision,” and “[w]henever landscaping is required … the subdivider shall agree to have the city establish a maintenance district to cover the cost of maintaining the required landscaping.”

Fairness is at the heart of the matter.

“The need for a district is to cover the cost of the city’s dwindling gas tax revenues,” Lower pointed out, adding that the current estimate for fiscal year 2020 is $235,000 for streetlights throughout the city.

Lower pointed out that if the council decides to scuttle lighting and landscaping districts as currently implemented, one alternative is a citywide lighting district “where everyone pays for the benefits they receive.” Under this option, fees levied against empty land would be different than those for developed land, and landscaping would be managed separately from lighting.

Concerns coming out of the Infrastructure Committee were about operation costs as well as future landscaping requirements.

“With water restrictions, what does the city want or need?” Lower asked. “We currently have designated scenic corridors in the General Plan,” but he gave his opinion that “I don’t know that this is viable anymore.” With new developments on the horizon, Lower urged a sense of haste.

“What the city is asking [for] today is direction,” Lower concluded. “Certainly, two lights and under is not a viable lighting district, but we don’t know where to draw the line beyond that.”

Lower added another concern from Infrastructure: “Where administration costs are more than the actual costs to maintain the district, what do we need to do?” The administrative fees cover staff support as well as Wildan’s fees. Wildan prepares the report that is submitted to Kern County, which is required to allow Ridgecrest to charge against property taxes.

In summary, Lower said, staff was asking council to determine how many lights would need to be in a development to make a viable district, how administrative costs should be handled and how landscaping should be handled.

This was not the council’s first go-round. In July the council held a public hearing to determine whether to form a maintenance district for a subdivision being developed by IWV Construction. After more than an hour and a half of sometimes tense discussion, council approved establishing a lighting and landscaping district for the development, which was formally approved at a meeting in August.

The primary concern from the developers was that the districts were being assessed arbitrarily in order to reach a predetermined status quo figure. The city’s concern was whether it would recoup its landscape and lighting maintenance costs.

However, despite an ordinance on the books, lingering doubts and concerns persist on the parts of both the council and private enterprise, leaving city staff asking for clear direction.

Mayor Peggy Breeden asked how the city determines the viability of a district. Lower answered that putting a district together costs about $3,000 to $7,000. He indicated that it was obviously out of balance for a one-light or two-light development. Where to draw the line above that is where Lower is seeking council’s guidance.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens, a member of the Infrastructure Committee, backed her remarks with a presentation of her own.

Her concerns came from a close examination of the consultant’s report that shows two sets of costs, one for what the city could charge and one for what the city does charge. The approach to determining charges in both columns, the amounts, and the practice of setting figures in one column arbitrarily high to “make them pencil out” raised many questions, objections and concerns.

Breeden said that years ago, when she was on Infrastructure, she recommended going to a citywide district. She saw that as fair because everyone benefits from lights, everyone equally shares in the costs. Strand also voiced support for a citywide district, but other said that while this option solves some problems, it raises others.

Stephens, for example, wondered aloud if voters would approve a second tax, which this would essentially be. “This [cost] will be removed from the gas tax, but a new tax will be added, and judging from the park vote, which was new, I don’t think voters will go for this either.”

Stephens was referring to the assessment for improving city park facilities that the city put to a general vote and was soundly defeated.

According to Stephens, some cities that started out with citywide lighting districts didn’t continue to increment costs, so now are losing money because when they go to the voters to increase the tax, the measure gets voted down.

She added that where costs are concerned, just putting the park assessment out to vote cost the city about $30,000.

Under public comment, Chuck Roulund, owner of IWV Construction, noted that the cost of actually getting these homes built is significantly more than expected. “My business model right now would not be less than 100 homes just because of how expensive it is to do.” His take is that, regarding in-fill developments within the city, “from a city standpoint, we want to be encouraging this.”

His recommendation is to get rid of landscape and lighting districts on in-fill development.

At times Roulund spoke from the standpoint of the city’s best interests, noting that he lives here too, and as a resident, he is interested in the city being successful, which includes supporting local development.

“They put in infrastructure. The whole up side to selling a house, tax revenue that the city gets, schools get, everybody gets, to be arguing over $1,000 when we’re paying Wildan $1,500 to push ‘print.’

“And these two 50-home developments coming up, if they actually break ground, that would be fantastic. We need to go out of our way to make that happen.”

The matter will go back to the Infrastructure Committee to discuss council’s recommendation that commercial lighting and landscaping districts will continue to follow the ordinance as written and to discuss the break point at which districts are required for in-fill residential developments.

Story First Published: 2019-11-29