Panel Backs Ventura Blvd. Assessment District : Revitalization: Supporters say the move would generate quick cash flow for the improvement plan. Reliance on trip fees would be reduced.

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A citizens panel overseeing implementation of a master plan for enhancing Ventura Boulevard wants to change the way the 20-year project is financed.

On Tuesday, the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan Review Board voted to pursue shifting the primary funding mechanism of the $222-million plan away from reliance mainly on high fees imposed on new development. The proposed replacement would instead involve creating a benefit assessment district to spread the cost of the plan among all boulevard property owners.

Members of the panel--appointed by the mayor and City Council members--said that forming the assessment district would provide a quick cash inflow for the now-anemic plan budget, which has been hampered by a lingering recession.

Details of such an assessment district have not been determined, said review board chairman Jeff Brain, but the concept would probably include five separate districts along the boulevard's 17 miles and would involve taxing property owners between a penny and a penny and a half per square foot, per month, for the 20-year life of the plan.

"This will spread the costs out so they're not unreasonable to anyone," Brain said. "And more important, it will allow us to get started on the improvements to the boulevard."

In exchange for boulevard property owners voting to approve a district, he said, reliance on so-called trip fees would be reduced.

"Trip fees" are levied against property owners based on the number of rush-hour automobile trips that city planners estimate their properties will generate on the boulevard. The plan anticipated generating about $12.9 million from those fees by now, but only about $313,000 has been collected to date.

Further hampering collection efforts are 39 appeals filed this spring by property owners fighting fees based on development between 1985 and 1991, when the plan was being hammered out.

Of the $12.5 million billed then, only $1.2 million has been paid and $8.4 million is under appeal.

"Trip fees aren't even coming close to meeting the requirements of the plan," said Tom Rath, a city planning associate who works with the plan review board. "And it doesn't look like they will any time in the foreseeable future."

No poll has been taken of boulevard property owners on whether they would support a benefit assessment district. But a prominent boulevard land-use attorney and two members of the plan review board, who represent the business community, say the districts are a popular alternative to trip fees.

"This a very good development. I think it will get widespread support," said Fred Gaines, who represents several property owners along the boulevard, including several who have filed appeals against the trip fees. "For anyone who has been involved with trip fees, they know it's just a nightmare."

Jan Sobel, executive director of the Encino Chamber of Commerce and a plan review board member member, agreed.

"My gut feeling is that they'll go for it because it'll improve the place they do business," Sobel said, stressing that she had not polled chamber membership on the subject. "Unfortunately someone has got to bear the burden of paying for it."

City Council planning experts cautioned that while the benefit districts might solve some funding problems, they may be difficult to administer and it also may be difficult to find support for them in the business community.

But Ken Bernstein, planning deputy for Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the southwestern San Fernando Valley, said the idea was not surprising. He said the plan has always contemplated an assessment district as a supplement to trip fees, but not as the primary source of funding.

"It's a significant issue," Bernstein said. "It's been brewing for a long time."

He said he wants to know how much such assessments would be, how much trip fees would be reduced and how the change would affect other elements of the plan, such as controls on height and density limits and street improvements.

"This should be done in a way that does not jeopardize the fragile consensus on which this plan was based," he said, recalling the years of emotional negotiations that produced the plan.

Cindy Miscikowski, planning deputy for City Councilman Marvin Braude, was also cautiously optimistic about the idea. "There is no question that it is far more equitable," Miscikowksi said. "But we'd be interested in seeing how much opposition it's going to have and whether it's going to fly."

She noted that benefit districts had been discussed as a method for paying for other improvements in the city, but seldom followed through on.

"If there's going to be an active and aggressive pursuit it could be beneficial to the boulevard and the city," she said, adding that the program may be a tough sell. "A recession is not a good time to hit property owners with anything."

Gerald A. Silver, an Encino activist who has frequently been at odds with the review board over its actions, embraced the idea of a benefit district.

But he also warned that it may be tough to sell.

"The property owners are going to squeal like stuck pigs over this," Silver said.

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