Angry Ventura Boulevard Builders Challenge Bills : Specific Plan: The trip fees for improving traffic conditions range from $8,000 to $800,000. Developers are threatening lawsuits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Developers who built along Ventura Boulevard in recent years are squawking loudly and threatening legal action after being hit with large bills from City Hall for fees earmarked for improving traffic conditions along the boulevard.

The clamor for relief has reached the point where the city is now studying ways to make the fees more palatable by giving property owners more time to pay them, officials with the city planning and transportation departments said Friday.

"We're looking at an easier alternative payment plan," said Vahan Pezeshkian, city traffic engineer.

The bills urge the property owners to pay the first installment of their traffic fees within 60 days.

The fees, known as trip fees, are authorized under the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, a sweeping ordinance adopted in January to manage the explosive growth along the busy boulevard, often called the San Fernando Valley's Main Street.

The bills--90 of which have been mailed so far--range from $8,000 to $800,000.

The size of each bill depends on a complex formula contained in the Specific Plan for calculating the effects that particular development projects have on traffic along the boulevard.

The fees are based partly on the number of vehicle trips a particular development would produce. The estimates vary depending on the type of development, from low-turnover restaurants to medical office buildings to gas stations to retail outlets.

All told, 170 projects are being hit with trip-fee bills totaling $16 million.

Developers said the fees would be difficult to pay in any business climate but are even more burdensome during a stubborn recession.

"It's reaching a crisis point," attorney Fred Gaines said of the fees. "It should be no surprise to the city that people are protesting these bills, especially because of the economy. Drive up and down the boulevard and you'll see lots of empty spaces. These are not people who can pay these bills."

Gaines is with the law firm of Reznik & Reznik, which has been actively involved for years in fighting the Specific Plan in court and at City Hall.

"I anticipate litigation on this," he said. Gaines said several property owners have already approached the Reznik firm about suing the city.

Gaines said the builders could challenge the formulas used to determine the fees by showing that the fees do not accurately estimate the amount of traffic a project would produce.

One of those anxious about the fees is John Stiegler Jr., a member of the family that owns Auto Stiegler, a Mercedes-Benz dealership. "I'm so scared about this I didn't even tell my dad about it," Stiegler said. "This could break a business that's been in the Valley for 35 years."

Stiegler recently received a trip-fee bill from the city for $197,169.70--half of which is due in 60 days. The fee is to pay for transportation improvements needed to accommodate the extra traffic associated with the recent expansion of Stiegler's auto dealership.

City staff members have not yet settled on a plan for softening the blow of the trip fees. Perhaps property owners would be allowed to pay the fees over a longer period or in more installments, officials said.

"We don't object to the idea of making the payments easier to make--we just want to be able to collect the fees," said Frank Fielding, a top city planning official in the San Fernando Valley who helped draft the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan.

Property owners are now being told to make two equal annual payments.

An alternative could be monthly payments over two years, or paying the bill in equal annual payments over three or four years, city officials said.

One problem the city faces in collecting the fees is that due to an oversight the Specific Plan contains no penalties for late payment, a snafu only recently discovered by city officials, said Allyn Rifkin, the top planner for the city's Department of Transportation.

Rifkin said planners hope to close that loophole when they present the City Council with a "clean-up" ordinance designed to address loose ends in the Specific Plan.

They hope to approach the council with the new measure in a few months, he said.

Stretching the timetable for owners to pay the fees could have a domino effect and delay construction on the improvements needed to ease traffic congestion.

"We might need to postpone some of the planned improvements," Fielding said.

Affected by the trip fees are 170 property owners who have developed or redeveloped their properties along Ventura Boulevard since 1985, when the city first enacted an interim control ordinance to curb growth along the strip in reaction to homeowner concerns.

These property owners agreed to pay whatever trip fees were eventually adopted by the City Council as part of the Specific Plan, the document that replaced the interim ordinance and established a permanent blueprint for managing growth on the boulevard.

Unlike the 170 property owners now receiving bills for projects built before the Specific Plan was adopted, projects that have been constructed since then have been required to pay the traffic fees before obtaining their building permits.

Only three projects have been built since then, and their total bill was $182,000.

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