County's Move to Ease Parkland Rules Nears Final Step

Times Staff Writer

A little-noticed Board of Supervisors decision a year ago that would benefit land developers and cost the county potential parkland is now only two steps shy of becoming law.

Step one occurs today, when the Planning Commission will consider changing the rules under which developers set aside land for local parks. Developers who have built more housing than they were required to for low- and moderate-income people would be able to escape some of the parkland obligations under the proposed rules.

A report by the Environmental Management Agency says it is "highly improbable" that developers will cash in all outstanding credits in return for eased parkland requirements. But if they did, the county could lose 154 acres of future local parkland or $46 million in fees.

If the Planning Commission approves, the legislation will go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. But it has already drawn fire from homeowners groups.

Beneficiaries of the board action would be developers who accumulated excess credits under the county's mandatory affordable housing program, which took effect in 1979 and is now being phased out.

The affordable housing program required developers to provide 25% of their new units for sale or rent to low- or moderate-income residents. Those who exceeded 25% were given credits, which they could sell to other builders or use themselves for future developments.

Separate regulations now require developers to give the county 2 1/2 acres of land for every 1,000 people who will live in their new development or else pay a stiff fee.

Under the proposed legislation, every 10 excess credits derived from building housing for low-income residents under the affordable housing program would enable a developer to reduce the parkland commitment by one acre.

In June, 1984, the supervisors adopted a resolution establishing guidelines for developers to exchange affordable housing credits and told county planners and lawyers to draw up legislation to implement the resolution.

The proposed local park code amendment was first discussed at the May 28 Planning Commission meeting, but when homeowners groups charged they were given insufficient notice of the change, the meeting was continued until today at 1:30 p.m. in the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

Among the homeowner-group leaders raising questions about the proposed rule change is Bob Hurst, chairman of the parks and recreation committee of the Laguna Niguel Community Council.

"I don't know what parks have to do with affordable housing to begin with," said Hurst, describing the proposed swap as "not a nice ordinance."

"I can't come up with anything positive," he said, "and I work for a

developer, too."

Stiles Burke, president of the 400-family South Laguna Civic Assn., said he too is preparing to tell the supervisors of his opposition to the proposal.

"I can't possibly understand how it could conceivably benefit the general public," Burke said. "I don't see any association or relationship between affordable housing and park space except that (when) we have more affordable housing, we really have a higher density population and we really need the park space . . . .

"I feel that the purpose behind it is primarily to benefit the developers who have these credits and would like to sell them for a profit. And I don't feel the county government or the taxpayers of this county have any obligation to see these guys profit on such a transaction."

Both Burke and Hurst said the supervisors' adoption of the resolution last June caught them by surprise. Even when he learned of it, Hurst said, county staffers told him "it didn't mean anything without a park code amendment," so he was not overly concerned.

At the time they passed the resolution, the supervisors ordered that the EMA and the county counsel come up with an amendment to the local park code, and it is the proposed amendment that comes up before the Planning Commission again today.

The current action is the legacy of the county's mandatory affordable housing program. The program required builders to provide 25% of their new units at prices that were within the means of residents earning 120% or less of the county's median income.

The number of credits earned depended on the housing built, with low-income housing--built for residents earning 80% or less of the median county income--generating more credits than moderate-income housing. The moderate-income housing was in turn divided into two categories: housing for those earning up to 100% of the median income and those earning up to 120% of the median.

Developers who built affordable housing were also allowed to build more units per acre than was otherwise allowed, could omit garages, and were entitled to other incentives.

Builders Wanted Compensation

In 1983, the supervisors decided to phase out the mandatory program over a three-year period, letting builders voluntarily provide affordable housing.

Developers who had extra credits because they had provided more than 25% of their units at affordable rates complained that the mandatory program had cut into their profits and contended that a way should be found to compensate them for their credits.

The supervisors decided to phase out the program over three years, rather than end it immediately, to give builders a chance to use up their credits. Then, last year, they ordered the parkland regulations drawn up as another way for developers to "spend" the credits.

County files show that at least nine companies have excess credits, ranging as high as 389 for Carma-Sandling Group of Irvine and 382 for Moreland Development Co. of Anaheim.

Although developers holding credits have been allowed to sell them to colleagues who chose not to include the affordable housing units in their developments, builders said they also wanted the option to swap their credits for a break in the requirement to provide local parkland.

"We're not trying to eliminate dedications of open space; we're just trying to look at some way to do justice to those people who provided affordable housing," said Philip Bettencourt, vice president of Gfeller Development Co. of Tustin, which has 122 credits.

Bettencourt said many condominiums already have "some sort of a recreational component on site," such as a swimming pool or play area, and noted that in the last decade Orange County has acquired almost 20,000 acres in regional parks.

In addition, Bettencourt contends, people who complain about insufficient parkland fail to "recognize that we have a national forest in our (county) boundaries and we also have magnificent ocean beaches."

Second Version Tougher

EMA planners drafted two versions of the legislation, and the Planning Commission will consider both. The second version is tougher on developers, requiring them to use the excess credits in the community in which they were earned.

Thus a developer, who earned credits for building more than 25% of his units in, say, Mission Viejo, for people of low or moderate income, could be relieved of his obligation to deed open land for parks to the county at his next development in Mission Viejo.

The developer would still have the option of exchanging the credits by not including as much affordable housing in a new development he built in any unincorporated area, and would not be restricted to Mission Viejo if parkland was not part of the exchange.

Under either version, a developer could exchange one credit earned from low-income housing for a reduction of one-tenth of an acre in parkland requirements. A credit from one category of moderate-income housing would bring .06 of an acre reduction; from the other category of moderate-income housing, .03 of an acre.

The legislation also stipulates that the proposed exchange of credits for park requirements cannot "result in an adverse effect on the surrounding community" and that local park acreage--meaning parks that residents can walk or bicycle to--cannot drop below an average of 1.6 acres per 1,000 people in the area where the housing project is located.

Peter Hersh, a senior planner at EMA, said the requirements "are safeguards built into state law that put the county in the position of looking at that land before it's given up."

Hersh said EMA officials took an unusually long time--almost a year--to draw up the legislation implementing the supervisors' resolution "to be sure it does not turn out to be a giveaway" to developers.

But that is precisely the concern of Sea and Sage Audubon, an environmental group whose president, Ferne Cohen, has protested that the loss of up to 154 acres of local parkland or up to $46 million in fees "is too high a price for the citizens of our rapidly developing county to pay."

Proposal Draws Protest

"We need all of the local land we can acquire for current use and . . . for the future," Cohen said in filing a protest that the Planning Commission will consider today.

Developers not wanting to give land to the county can pay fees instead, but a recent change in the way the county values land in unincorporated areas has boosted the cost, with one empty acre generally being considered worth $150,000. With a requirement of 2.5 acres for 1,000 people, a developer of a 1,000-resident development would generally have to pay $375,000 just for the park fee.

The EMA report says the value of parkland lost could be anywhere from $6 million to $46 million, depending on the value of the land where the developments are built.

The EMA legislation is less generous to developers than was the board's original resolution. The EMA said a developer's credit for low-income construction--for those earning 80% or less than the median county family income, currently $39,000 per year--would equal one-tenth of an acre. The supervisors had granted a developer a reduction of six-tenths of an acre of local park land for each low-income credit.

The chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Thomas F. Riley, said he and his colleagues "know it's a sharply divided issue, in which we're going to find that those who are involved with open spaces and parks and environmental issues will be pushing for one position; and obviously I would anticipate the (Building Industry Assn.) and some of the developers will probably try to stay with the original formula (of last June)."

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