Council denies request for city money for garden

South Laguna Civic Assn. won't get seed money from the city to buy community garden plots.

The City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to deny the request by the association for $251,000 to jump-start the drive to raise almost $1 million to purchase the land that local gardeners have been tilling for the past three years. Financial uncertainty and competing requests were cited as the reasons.

Councilman Kelly Boyd feared the city would dig itself into a hole if the request was approved.

"My concern is that if $250,000 is given to South Laguna for their garden, Top of the World will wonder where theirs is and North Laguna will want one," Boyd said. "I can't support putting up $250,000 with no guarantees that you [the association] can raise $750,000."

Boyd joined with Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson and retiring Mayor Jane Egly to deny the association request.

Pearson said the allocation of $250,000 for the garden would not be fiscally prudent when the city may still be liable for damages from the 2010 flood.

Councilwomen Toni Iseman and retiring Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger voted in favor of city participation.

"We may bring this back after the new council is seated," said Bill Rihn, president of the association. "The garden was one of the questions we asked the candidates when the association interviewed them, but I can't remember their positions."

Robert Whalen and Steven Dicterow will be installed on the council Dec. 4.

Besides the $250,000, association members and gardeners want the city to give them two years to raise the necessary funds and if successful would then turn the garden property over to city ownership.

"This would create a legacy for this particular council," Barbara Miller Picheny said.

The association claims it is entitled to the city money because it came from the sale of property in South Laguna that was identified on a 1927 tract map as park land, while under county jurisdiction. Never used as a park, the property was inventoried as surplus county land and acquired by the city this year by a quit-claim deed.

For the past three years gardeners have enjoyed the use of the property granted by out-of-town owner Paul Tran, who allowed them to cultivate 53 separate 8-by-6-foot garden beds for free. Tran decided this fall to sell the property.

"We panicked when the signs went up," said South Laguna resident and former Mayor Ann Christoph.

However, the association came to an informal agreement with Tran to hold off the sale for a year, with a more formal agreement to include a $25,000 option payment that would be credited to the sales price, according to Rihn.

While the request for city money had overwhelming support from the audience at the hearing, there was considerable behind-the-scenes opposition.

"I have never gotten more e-mails telling me the council can't spend that much city money for 52 lots," Egly said."I certainly hope you can raise the money. If it is such a good idea you should be able to find grants."

Even if the money is raised, the association would face challenges, Egly said.

Red tape would include a zoning change for the commercial property, American Disabilities Act requirements, environmental studies and environmental certification.

Pearson said raising the purchase price and other necessary funding is a daunting task.

"I do this for a living, and it isn't easy," Pearson said.

She suggested city staff help the gardeners to identify a new location if the lease is terminated and some city funding, but not $250,000.

"We have decisions to make," Rihn said.

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