County Eases Rules That Require Public Parks From Builders

Times Staff Writer

After heavy lobbying from the development industry, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday eased requirements for local parks, allowing home builders for the first time to comply with the law by developing private parks that in some cases exclude the public.

Until now, builders could obtain only partial credit under the law for private parks and were required to either give up additional public parkland or pay fees--often several hundred thousand dollars--for improving and maintaining public parks.

Under the revised requirements, adopted on a 4-1 vote, home builders can now obtain full credit for developing a private park, so long as they also agree to improve and maintain it. As a result, neighborhood parks in new subdivisions can now fully comply with county requirements even if they are located within private, gated communities or if they require a homeowner's association membership card for access.

'Social Engineering'

Critics of the new policy called it "social engineering" because it allows the development of neighborhood parks restricted to only those families who can afford to buy homes near the park. Supervisor Bruce Nestande vehemently argued against the new policy, saying it provides incentives for building private, rather than public, parks.

"You're going to see a proliferation of private parks in south county, in my opinion, mark my words," Nestande said.

But the Orange County Building Industry Assn. and the Mission Viejo Co., which lobbied heavily in favor of the new policy, said it will lead to the development of better parks. For years, developers have been giving up land for public parks, but the county has not had the money to improve them, they said.

The park requirements are part of the county park code adopted in response to the 1965 Quimby Act, which required cities and counties statewide to make provisions for neighborhood parks when they approve new housing tracts. The act does not stipulate that the parks be accessible to the public.

The code's basic provisions require developers to set aside 2.5 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents or pay park fees if for some reason they are unable to offer the land. For a 1,000-home subdivision, typical fees would amount to about $800,000.

Historically, private parks could meet only 50% of a developer's park code requirements. Now, they can meet 100% of the requirement, as long as the developer improves and maintains the parks. Nestande argued that developers should be required to offer twice as much land as they normally would if the park is to be private, as well as being required to improve and maintain the park.

"Heretofore, the parks have always been placed outside of the gated community, so anybody could use it. That's not going to be the case now," he said. "I think it's a betrayal to the future of the south county, where we are simply not going to have the abundance of local parks that we have now," he said.

Members of a citizens committee that helped develop the park code requirements--and who recommended against stricter requirements for private parks--said neighborhood parks should be available to anyone, not just those who belong to the homeowner's association that owns and maintains them.

'Locking Out Children'

"You're locking out children who don't understand the jurisdictional responsibilities," said one, who asked not to be identified. "What develops is a kind of have-have not situation that isn't good for kids."

Murray Storm, director of the Environmental Management Agency, also recommended stricter requirements for private parks. "We really should have a public park system, one that all members of the community can use," he said, though he called the board's action Tuesday "a concession" that also did not give the development industry everything it was seeking.

Builders wanted no difference between public and private park requirements, he said. The Mission Viejo Co. sent its own staff members and a lobbyist, Frank Michelena, traveling through supervisors' offices over the past several weeks to make that point clear.

In fact, Nestande blamed the Mission Viejo Co. for bringing the matter to the board's attention this week. He said he thought the matterhad been resolved. In a hearing on the issue Dec. 5, Nestande said he made a motion imposing the double land requirement for private parks.

However, when that resolution was circulated to board offices over the next few weeks, other supervisors said they had thought the less stringent requirements were adopted and the county counsel recommended putting it to a vote again.

"I'm sure because of some developer's request, it was changed," Nestande said. "There was just no way to compromise. They (the Mission Viejo Co.) went out and found the four votes and said, 'Why compromise?' "

"This issue was worked intensively," Nestande said of the lobbying efforts of the company, which is headquartered in his district. "They stuck Frank (Michelena) on it, and everything. They pulled out all the plugs. They pulled out all the stops, and I just think it was most unfortunate."

The Mission Viejo Co. is in the process of building a new 20,000-home planned community in south Orange County, Aliso Viejo, for which park dedication requirements are not yet fixed.

Company spokesman David Celestin acknowledged that he worked closely with supervisors' offices to draft the language of the new policy, but he said the company views it as a better way of meeting the original intent of the Quimby Act, which was to provide local parks for residents of new tracts.

'Satisfying the Need'

In the past, he said, the company has often given up land for public parks. "We would grade it, walk away, and the county would have to come up with funds to improve or maintain it. We've had parks that have sat for eight years without improvements," he said.

John Erskine, executive director of the Orange County Building Industry Assn., said the organization strongly supported the move. "When you've got the situation where a developer is willing to dedicate the park and improve it, whether it's private or not is really irrelevant because it's satisfying the need created by that subdivision," he said. "Whether it's got a little gate around it or whether it's sitting on a corner really doesn't matter."

Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley, who represents the developing south county with Nestande, said he expected that the development of private parks "will be the exception, rather than the rule."

The Mission Viejo Co. has a park near Lake Mission Viejo that does not exclude the public, even though it is nominally a private park, Riley added. "I really have difficulty believing that was a bad thing for the county," he said. "Right now, I believe the County of Orange has the largest park system in the state of California, and we didn't do that by sitting back and doing nothing."

However, Nestande argued that the board should at least have scheduled another public hearing before taking action on the issue. At the December hearing, the League of Women Voters argued against loosening requirements for private parks.

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