Angered by the over-the-counter sale of a potentially valuable piece of land, Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski on Monday called for greater council oversight when the city sells surplus land.
Zukowski said she intends to raise the issue at tonight's City Council meeting because, she said, the current process is vague and limits public participation.
"I put this on the agenda because if we're selling (property), it should be made available to anyone," Zukowski said. "I don't want to see us giving preferential treatment to any particular buyer."
But other city officials said the current system offers safeguards against favoritism.
"How the city handles the sale of a property is always up to the discretion of the City Council," City Atty. Mark Sellers said. "If they want to put it up to bid, that's their option."
The issue arose last week when Zukowski learned that the city had appraised, and then agreed to sell, an abandoned house and 7,200-square-foot lot on East Hillcrest Drive.
The city bought the property five years ago when Hillcrest Drive was widened from two lanes to four. The property was advertised briefly but was not listed with a real estate broker or put up for public auction, Zukowski said.
Recently, Newbury Park business owners Steven and Billy Cotts privately purchased the property for $97,000. Zukowski said city staff put the deal together without council input.
Zukowski questioned the sale because she felt the purchase price was low, given recent zone changes that have allowed greater development of neighboring properties. Last week, for example, the council approved a 45-townhome development on a parcel a few blocks from the city-owned land.
If the city had sold its parcel based on its development potential instead of its current zoning for single-family houses, she said, the city could have made more money.
Local realtors also said they were unhappy about the process the city used to appraise and sell the house.
"I think there are a lot of people who would have been interested in that property, had anyone known it was up for sale," said Joy Reznick, a Thousand Oaks realtor. "I don't understand why some properties are put up for public bid and others are not. That seems inconsistent to me."
Sellers said the council could have handled each case however it wanted.
Thousand Oaks Planning Commissioner Linda Parks said she agreed with Zukowski that more oversight is necessary. In other cities, Parks said, the Planning Commission oversees the sale of surplus property.
"It is clear that right now what we've got is an inconsistent and confusing policy," Parks said.
In addition to proposing guidelines to formalize the sale of surplus land, she said the council should also consider using several appraisers instead of just one. And she suggested putting appraisal contracts out to competitive bid.
"We have a type of approach that could be very easily manipulated, and that's of concern to me," she said last week. "We're dealing with public funds and public assets here. A single appraisal does not protect public assets."
But Sellers said that putting appraisal contracts out to bid could backfire because, in the appraisal business, "reputation and knowledge are more important than the lowest bidder."
And he said authorizing several appraisals would waste both time and money. Appraisals generally take two to three months to complete.
Staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.