When Lynn Greene bought her Carmel Valley dream home six years ago, her sales agent promised a first-class planned community with all the amenities: neighborhood schools, safe streets, natural open space and recreational opportunities for her kids. He also promised that a neighborhood park would replace the five-acre patch of parched weeds behind her house.
But veteran homeowners in Carmel Valley could have told the Greene family that sales pitches rarely match reality in San Diego's model master planned community. For them, the past 15 years have been marked by disappointments and often loud, acrimonious fights with city officials over funding for the staples of a livable community. The woeful Carmel Valley Facilities Benefit Assessment story might serve as a cautionary tale for facility finance planners working on future master planned communities in San Diego.
At the center of the storm is the funding mechanism for infrastructure and amenities in new San Diego communities like Carmel Valley called the FBA fund. Each year, faced with FBA funding shortages, the Carmel Valley Planning Board engages in the painful process of recommending project priorities to the City Council, knowing its decision will delay an array of projects that were promised in Carmel Valley's master plan.
Such is the case with the Greenes' neighborhood park. Originally slated for construction in the early '90s, the park won't see green until 2001. The reason for the delay is at the heart of the problem with the FBA mechanism.
Faced with Proposition 13 tax cuts, the framers of San Diego's Progress Guide and General Plan in 1979 began with the principle that new development must pay for its own facilities. Unlike Carlsbad, which required builders to put in facilities before development, San Diego's plan required developers to pay a per-unit or per-acre fee when filing for a permit based on the number and type of facilities required by the general plan, the costs, the rate of development and the type of land use, such as single-family, multi-family or commercial. Developers could pass the cost on to the buyer.
But, the framers did not allow for any front-loading in the fund, which means the FBA is a pay-as-you-go scheme with no capitalization. Any downturn in the economy causes a lag in facility construction because permitting slows. And real families who already paid their share for facilities in the cost of their homes can see a child go from cradle to college without setting foot in a community park. Such is the case in Carmel Valley.
Financing planners also did not understand that the costs for land acquisition and facility construction once development has begun would be astronomical. Land price-tags, which appear to go unquestioned by city officials, are determined when an applicant files a tentative map with the city, usually during times when land prices are soaring. And the hidden bureaucratic costs in city-run construction projects produce the $100,000 potties and $25,000 signs that make taxpayers revolt because they know that private developers could get the job done quicker and much cheaper.
For example, the city has the FBA spending about $500,000 an acre for park land in Carmel Valley since a 1989 purchase of a 17-acre community park site. So the Greenes' neighborhood park will cost $2.5 million simply for raw land. And city officials want the FBA to buy a site for a future police station for $2 million this year. Although conveniently located across from Krispy Donuts, the gold-plated facility wouldn't open for at least 10 years and the cost would push park construction into the next century.
Finally, FBA planners never considered the city manager's habit of grabbing spare change from funds languishing in city coffers for more than a few days. Several years ago, Carmel Valley Planning Board Chairman John Dean discovered that the city burdened the FBA with a $23 million debt to fund Route 56, a regional freeway. Without the ensuing well-publicized protest, Carmel Valley residents would have been cruising Route 56 for years before they saw their parks and schools built.
And so, Lynn Greene's neighborhood park and an elementary school's playing fields wait in a queue of projects that the Planning Board has reviewed for at least a decade, which have included water lines, roads and a library. Today, at the top of the list are longstanding promises made to this community by successive boards: a central recreational park and joint-use facilities for a new elementary school.
Communities should not have to choose among recreational facilities, schools and cops when they pay mightily for them. While city staff assure the Carmel Valley Planning Board year after year that the FBA is solvent and will show a surplus when the community is finally built out, facilities continue to lag well behind need. And, given the arcane bookkeeping system, watching the bouncing dimes would befuddle Arthur Anderson himself.
Mayor Susan Golding should establish an independent commission made up of facility finance planners, community planning board representatives, accounting auditors and developer representatives to review the FBA process before new master-planned communities come on-line.
Families like the Greenes deserve assurance that San Diego's community facilities financing system is not another shifty sales promise.