County Fire-Protection Costs Put Damper on Incorporation of Cities

Times Staff Writer

For supporters of a city of Rancho Las Virgenes, the bombshell dropped in December, 1981, with a last-minute, surprise announcement that the proposed municipality would have to pay a whopping wild-land fire protection bill it couldn't afford.

Up to that point, neither the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees incorporation of cities, nor community leaders had ever heard of a wild-land protection fee. Cityhood supporters and even the LAFCO chairman had regarded formation of the city, which would have encircled Agoura and Calabasas, as a certainty.

"We were on the last lap of approving the project when in came the fire people, throwing a wrench in the whole thing," recalled LAFCO Chairman Kenneth Chappell. "I was so dumbfounded. Where were they at all the hearings and all the study sessions?"

$714,000 Bill

LAFCO denied Rancho Las Virgenes' cityhood application on the basis of Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Frederick Morton Jr.'s assertion that the city would have to pay $714,000 a year to the county for fire protection in wilderness areas within its city limits.

The effort to incorporate Rancho Las Virgenes has long since faded. But the case--the first in Los Angeles County in which the wild-land fee came up--marked an important turning point for other outlying Los Angeles County communities seeking to incorporate. They, too, would encounter the wild-land protection fee and, because of it, many would have to settle for less than what they had hoped for.

In the Santa Clarita Valley and Calabasas areas, where groups are now trying to form cities, the wild-land protection fee has made cityhood advocates suspicious of the costly incorporation process. In both cases, the fee has been so overwhelming that it has effectively prevented those would-be cities from laying claim to much of the rural land in their originally proposed boundaries.

When the county Fire Department determined that the wild-land fee for the city of Santa Clarita would be $1.8 million, LAFCO chopped the proposed municipality's size in half, to 43 square miles, dramatically reducing the fee for fire protection. The $1.6-million fee in Calabasas also is prompting LAFCO to draw much smaller boundaries there.

Critics charge that the fee is artificially inflated and, as a result, developers can avoid the scrutiny of cities that might adopt a slow-growth philosophy.

"The $1.6-million figure is not just ludicrous, it's outrageous," said Kenneth Wikle, an attorney and member of the Calabasas cityhood committee. "Something is drastically wrong. It's very difficult to get them to reveal how they arrived at these figures. We think it's fundamentally wrong and definitely requires a legislative correction."

But Fire Department officials defend their figures and say there is nothing hocus-pocus about them. They say they base their figures on the number of county fire personnel assigned to fight wilderness fires within the proposed cities' boundaries.

Unfair to Taxpayers

Furthermore, they said, the wild-land fee was never brought up before Rancho Las Virgenes because no city had proposed incorporating with so much open space. If the new city didn't pay for it, taxpayers countywide would, and that wouldn't be fair, they said.

If residents want to incorporate, the Fire Department's Morton said, "they are going to have to accept the responsibility for providing a reasonable level of fire protection. That's where the rub comes in."

State Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), however, has questioned whether someone is dramatically inflating the figures. He has introduced legislation that would forbid Los Angeles County from charging more for wilderness protection during the first three years of a city's life than the state does.

Los Angeles is one of only six counties that protects its wilderness areas on a contract basis rather than having state firefighters do it.

Davis said he believes the fire-prevention figures are wrong based upon what the state now pays the county to protect those wilderness areas. This year, the state is paying the county $5 million to protect 600,000 wilderness acres in the county. The county, however, would charge Calabasas $1.6 million for its 15,714 wilderness acres.

After an incorporation, the state no longer pays for protection of wilderness within the new city.

James Hunt, an assistant fire chief, maintains that such a comparison is misleading because it actually costs the county about $35 million to protect the areas. He attributes the higher cost to the county's providing better fire protection than the state does.

"Tell me my figures are wrong. Tell me my figures aren't right. All I know is, we spend more money in wild-land areas than $5 million and cities should be responsible for their share," Hunt said.

Partial Reimbursement

But if the state isn't reimbursing the county for the full amount, the county should change its arrangement with the state, Davis countered.

State forestry officials say they pay the county according to what it would cost the state to provide protection. Gary Brittner, a state forest ranger in Sacramento, said the financial arrangement between the county and state probably comes out about even.

The county Fire Department's personnel earn slightly more than the state would pay, but the state pays for some fire positions year-round, even though the brush-fire season is only six to eight months long, Brittner said. Also, the state provides free services if a major fire erupts in a county wilderness area, he said.

Stephen A. Saroian, a Woodland Hills attorney and leader of the failed Rancho Las Virgenes incorporation drive, remains bitter about the last-minute defeat over the wild-land fee.

LAFCO was on the verge of giving approval for incorporation at a meeting in November, 1981, when county Supervisor Mike Antonovich asked for a continuance on a boundary matter. Saroian remembers that he later asked Antonovich, who was a member of LAFCO and opposed the incorporation, if there would be any surprises during the delay.

He recalls Antonovich responding, "I think there is some new information that might be forthcoming."

"I said, 'What is it so we can respond,' " Saroian recalls.

Saroian said the supervisor responded, "You'll find out."

8,186 Letters Sent

Antonovich said he doesn't remember details of the Rancho Las Virgenes incorporation attempt, talking with Saroian or asking for a delay. And Morton said the wild-land protection fee was not Antonovich's idea.

But, after the city proposal was denied, Antonovich sent out 8,186 letters at taxpayers' expense to rebut what he called "a rash of highly flagrant statements" regarding his opposition to the proposed city. Approving the city, he said, could have triggered the same problems that led to the bankruptcy of New York City.

Nevertheless, supporters of the cityhood movements remain suspicious. Madelyn Glickfeld, an urban planner and an alternate on the state Coastal Commission, says the wild-land fee could be used to hamper incorporation efforts and protect developers' interests.

"Those two things fit very well--wild-land fees and undeveloped land," she said. "The county is just using this as a smoke screen."

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