County Lags in Getting Parks to Match Growth

Times Staff Writer

The Santa Clarita Valley and the Las Virgenes region, two of the fastest-growing areas in Los Angeles County, have few community parks because the county does not aggressively enforce an ordinance requiring developers to provide for parks when building housing projects.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, the county has added just 14 acres of parkland in 14 years, during which time the population has doubled to 120,000. In the Las Virgenes area, Calabasas residents are still waiting for their first neighborhood county park.

The county could be receiving millions of dollars more each year to buy and develop parkland if it would take advantage of a 1974 ordinance designed to prevent a park shortage.

Land Rarely Given

Under the ordinance, Los Angeles County can require developers to provide land or an equivalent amount in cash to create parks for residents of new housing tracts. In practice, the county rarely asks developers to give land, opting for money instead. Those payments, however, are artificially low.

In Bouquet Canyon, for instance, if the county determines that a builder should provide an acre of parkland in exchange for building his subdivision, he is allowed instead to pay a fee of $11,682. An acre of unimproved land in the area, however, is worth $169,806, according to the county assessor.

County officials say that raising the fee schedule is a cumbersome process and has not been a priority in recent years. They also say that the county is reluctant to acquire more parks because it wouldn't have the money to maintain them.

Critics charge that the county has kept the fees low to keep the building industry happy.

"There is so little parkland considering the amount of development that has occurred here," said Jan Heidt, a Santa Clarita city councilwoman. "When you have the lobbying power, like the building industry has, it's not surprising."

On the other side, developers warn that forcing them to pour more money into the park system won't hurt them but will hurt the little guy. Extra fees will be passed onto the homeowner, who is already paying for sewers, schools, fire protection and streets in the purchase of a house. About 20% of the cost of a new home in some unincorporated parts of the county is traced to fees passed on to buyers, developers say.

"I think more people need affordable housing in the state and the Santa Clarita Valley than need a park," argued Richard Wirth, a representative of the Building Industry Assn.

Parents in Canyon Country, one of the Santa Clarita Valley areas exploding with new houses, apartments and condominiums, don't need statistics to understand the problem.

McDonald's a Surrogate Park

There are no parks in Canyon Country, and the tiny playground at McDonald's restaurant has become a popular surrogate park for preschoolers.

"I don't like junk food, but I'll put up with it to give her a place to play," Lynn Polke said as she watched her daughter, Jessica, climb aboard a hamburger merry-go-round.

The county's authority to tax developers derives from a 1965 state law nicknamed the Quimby Act. At the urging of then-Assemblyman John Quimby, it was approved by legislators who were worried that the state's housing boom was swallowing up alarming amounts of irreplaceable open space.

Supporters of the act, which was considered revolutionary at the time, envisioned it as a way local governments throughout California could obtain parkland without spending a dime.

After a lengthy court challenge by developers failed, Los Angeles in 1970 became one of the first municipalities in the state to aggressively begin using the act. Los Angeles County began its Quimby program by adopting an ordinance four years later.

Under the ordinance, the county has authority to require a builder to donate three acres of parkland for every 1,000 people expected to move into a development. If a developer is allowed to give cash in lieu of land, the payment is to be based on the value of an acre of land in the area of the development, the ordinance says.

Fees Fell Behind

Over the years, however, the fees fell behind land values.

In 1982, the last time they were increased, the fees were based in part on 1975 land values provided by the county assessor, making them obsolete the moment they were adopted. They were out of date because Proposition 13 froze land values on county assessment rolls at 1975 levels for all unsold properties. The county did not take the extra step to determine what the true market value was.

In the mid-1980s, updating the fees became a low priority, said Ronald Gagnon, a county park planner.

Los Angeles County's parks department told the board in late 1986 that the fees were too low. But the Board of Supervisors postponed the matter for more than a year while different fee formulas were presented. During that period, Supervisor Mike Antonovich's staff and county officials met with developers to ask them what fee increases would be equitable.

This week, the Board of Supervisors is expected to raise the fees--to almost double what they are now--but park officials and the board agree that it is only a temporary solution. The new fees, endorsed by the developers, do not come close to equaling the fair market value of land, as the ordinance requires.

In Bouquet Canyon, for instance, an $11,682 fee per acre of parkland required of the builder would rise to $22,801--or 13% of the $169,806 fair market value--according to a new study by the county.

The vote delays have been costly. If the board had doubled the fees a year ago, the county would have received $576,500 more in park revenue, records indicate. Of that amount, $477,500, would have been used for parks in the Santa Clarita Valley, where most of the county's housing construction is taking place.

If the fees had been increased to fair market value as recently as last June, the county would have generated $5 million more in fees in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Supervisor Ed Edelman and residents are furious that a year has been wasted setting interim fees that don't even satisfy the law.

"It's unconscionable it hasn't been raised," said Edelman, who complained about the delays at a board meeting in December. "Obviously, it appears maybe the building industry is dragging its feet."

Calling the fees a "pittance," Connie Worden, a community activist in the Santa Clarita Valley, claimed that residents "have been shortchanged for a number of years because of the disregard of the application and implementation of the Quimby law."

But Antonovich said the process has been slowed by the complicated nature of setting fees. He said he does not believe that the fair-market figures produced by the county assessor are accurate.

Antonovich promised that the county will produce correct figures in March. He called the interim fees a good start until then.

"We have doubled the fees of the Quimby Act and we're working to increase those fees further because of the need to have additional parks," Antonovich said.

Ralph S. Cryder, county park director, proposes phasing in larger, more realistic fees over several years, which he feels is the only compromise the board and the developers will accept. But Wirth called the fair-market values set by the county assessor "wacko" because, he contended, they are based on an inadequate land sample.

A check of other local governments indicates that adjusting Quimby fees is not an arduous process elsewhere. The City of Los Angeles increases its fees annually and has obtained $63 million through Quimby and acquired 820 acres of parkland.

Ventura County, Agoura Hills, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley use the latest land appraisals to set their fees. Since beginning its Quimby program, the county has collected $7.9 million in fees and has acquired 180 acres through parkland donations. By mid-1987, $4.3 million had been spent.

So far, six county parks, totaling 51 acres, have been completed through Quimby, while a handful are in various stages of development.

The biggest park windfall in the northern part of the county occurred before 1981, when Baxter Ward was a supervisor.

While in office, Ward demanded that the county use the Quimby Act to aggressively acquire parkland in his district. That policy was a boon to the area that has since become Agoura Hills because, at the time, it was the fastest-growing unincorporated area. The county developed two parks and acquired five other sites that were turned over to Agoura Hills after it incorporated in 1982. Another site was turned over to Westlake Village after it became a city in 1981.

In an interview, Ward said he considered the Quimby Act a wonderful opportunity to preserve land that otherwise would be forever lost to concrete. He said he had hoped that the county, through the park program, could avoid some of the mistakes the city of Los Angeles has made over the decades.

"When I came from the East in 1955, I always marveled that the city of Los Angeles had total open space, perhaps more than any city in the country, but it allowed its land to be squandered," Ward said. "You can drive for miles in this city and not see any greenery except in cemeteries."

Since Antonovich defeated Ward in 1980, no county parks have been built in the northwest corner of the county, even though the Calabasas area has been growing steadily. And the Santa Clarita Valley's one county Quimby park also was obtained during Ward's term.

Not Aware of Park Lag

Antonovich said he hadn't realized that county park dedications under Quimby had stopped during his term. He said higher priorities such as health care for the poor have drained money from recreation.

By the county's own formula, the rapidly developing areas on the county's fringes are poor in parks. The unincorporated Las Virgenes area should have about 90 acres of neighborhood parks, according to the county's Department of Regional Planning's General Plan. It has three acres. In Santa Clarita Valley, there should be 476 acres of county neighborhood parks. Only 112 acres exist.

In some neighborhoods in the Santa Clarita Valley, children squeeze past padlocked gates to play on school yards because there is no place else to go. League softball and baseball teams often must drive to Sylmar to play because there are only six county ball fields in the Valley.

There are waiting lists for the county's basketball leagues in the Valley because there are no county gymnasiums. The county depends on schools to donate whatever gym time is left after its teams play. After 11 years of trying, parents still haven't been able to get a swing set for North Oaks Park in Saugus.

"There are too many children in this Valley for what we have," said Karen Grant, a county recreation staffer in the Santa Clarita Valley. "It's just growing by leaps and bounds. There are not enough facilities."

The only Quimby park in the Santa Clarita Valley is the four-acre Almendra Park in Valencia, on property donated in 1978 and developed by the Valencia Co. to satisfy its Quimby requirement.

The only other county park opened in the Santa Clarita Valley in 14 years has been the 10-acre Bouquet Canyon Park, which was bought without Quimby funds before the county experienced its financial crunch in the late 1970s.

It is generally agreed that the greatest area of need in the Santa Clarita Valley is among the newer subdivisions, many of which are clustered in the Canyon Country and Saugus areas.

In contrast, Valencia is flush with parks because Valencia's sole builder, the Valencia Co., made a practice of developing parks and grassy paseos for its planned communities even before Quimby existed. In the late '60s and early '70s, the company developed three small parks in Valencia, which it turned over to the county.

In Calabasas, homeowners wonder why the county hasn't provided them with a single tennis court, swimming pool or ball field. Agoura Hills officials are asking the same question. The city is feeling the pinch from Calabasas residents who are using its sports facilities and making demands.

"We are inundated by people who say we need more tennis courts, we need soccer fields, we need baseball fields," complained Fran Pavley, an Agoura Hills city councilwoman. "We ask them why not go downtown to the county, but they dismiss it. They say we are the responsive ones. I'm worried we won't be able to keep pace when the area builds out, and we won't be able to provide for everyone's park needs."

Tried to Divest Park

At the very least, residents grumble that Quimby money should be used to rehabilitate the Las Virgenes area's sole regional park, Tapia Park. Citing a lack of funds, the county tried to get rid of the park a couple of years ago by leasing it to a couple. But the arrangement didn't work out. Now the county hopes to swap the park to the state.

While the park was in private hands, tons of dirt were dumped in it. The land is eroding, a road is crumbling, the basketball court's surface is cracked and sprouting weeds, and broken drinking fountains are not replaced.

"I don't think there is any question we need more parks," said Etsel Yamasaki, a county construction and planning coordinator. "But we aren't doing a good job of maintaining what we have."

Meanwhile, the county is faced with a backlog of park sites that officials say they have no money to develop. Most of these are in the Santa Clarita Valley and are used by builders and others to dump broken chunks of concrete, asphalt and other rubble.

In Castaic, residents have been waiting more than five years for the county to transform one of these parcels into a park. In their frustration, they began writing letters to Antonovich, urging him to intercede. The supervisor has received 100 letters, and one of the drive's organizers, Michele Edmonson, says he can expect 250 more.

"We feel frustrated. We feel we have been run around. We feel we have been really kind of betrayed," Edmonson said. "We've been promised and told all along by the county . . . there would be a park there. Our kids are getting cheated."

Parks Director Cryder said he is not sure whether there is a park shortage. He wants to wait until the county conducts a study this year to determine what the needs are. A money crunch has kept the department from updating its needs study since the early 1970s, he said.

"I think most parks are where people reside, where they are needed," Cryder said. "I can't think of any area particularly where we're hurting."

Gloria Casvin, a vice president at the Valencia Co., questions how the financially crippled county could maintain all the new parks that could conceivably be created if the fees were raised dramatically.

"What if parks and recreation built all these wonderful parks? Who's going to maintain them? Nobody has ever thought about that," Casvin said.

Park officials appreciate Casvin's observation. They blame the county's inability to steadily add to its park inventory and to maintain the ones it has on Proposition 13.

In fact, the Department of Parks and Recreation's policy for almost a decade has been to avoid building county parks whenever possible, Cryder said.

"It's a matter of survival and economics. If we don't have the money, we don't take on more parks," said park planner Gagnon.

Toward that end, the county is trying to reduce its vacant-land inventory by releasing some developers from their Quimby land requirements and pressing for creation of private parks. A developer who builds a private park can satisfy the Quimby requirement even though the park excludes the public.

A private park has been completed in Calabasas and Santa Clarita, and another one is under construction in Valencia.

"We've been promoting private parks as much as possible," Gagnon said. "They are owned and maintained by the homeowners, and it's not a burden to our operating budget."

SEARCHING FOR FAIR MARKET VALUE

Fair Market Area Current Fee New Fee Value Agoura/Calabasas $30,456 $59,444 $490,752 Topanga $24,349 $47,524 $116,805 Newhall/Valencia/ $22,998 $44,887 $328,827 Saugus Bouquet Canyon/ $11,682 $22,801 $169,806 Canyon Country Agua Dulce/Acton $1,521 $2,969 $44,317 Oat Mtn., Area $13,236 $25,834 $245,180 North of Chatsworth Malibu $49,345 $96,329 $405,730 East Malibu $108,633 $212,029 $244,586

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