Friday, October 16, 2015

OC Register Editors Get It Wrong!

MISGUIDED PRAISE
This morning the editors at the Orange County Register published an opinion on their pages, which can be found online HERE, that postulates that "after decades of attempting to root out several problematic motels through coercion and police action" Costa Mesa stumbled upon a more "novel solution: the free market."

COSTA MESA MOTOR INN
In their piece they refer specifically to the recent decision by the operators of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, the largest of the so-called problem motels and the one which racked up the greatest number of calls for public safety services in recent years, to demolish their 236-room facility and build a new "luxury" apartment complex with 224 units - 20 of which would be aimed at the "moderate income" demographic.  In Costa Mesa, that would be someone earning north of $100,000.

LOSS OF LOW INCOME HOUSING
One of the impacts of this decision is that it removes from the city inventory a significant number of housing units currently being utilized by very low or low income families and individuals.  Yes, city officials will correctly observe that those rooms were NOT counted as part of their government-recognized numbers, but the fact is that facility has housed many such individuals and families.

YES, THE "PROBLEM MOTELS" HAVE DETERIORATED
Nobody will argue that the Costa Mesa Motor Inn - a place where families headed for a beach vacation would book a room or two for a week or two back in the 1970s when it first opened - and many of it's contemporaries in the motel business in Costa Mesa, currently provide accommodations acceptable to most of us.  They have deteriorated into venues for folks temporarily - and sometimes not so temporarily - down on their luck.  They are the last bastion for many before becoming homeless or the first step up on their way back from homelessness.  Mayor Steve Mensinger has regaled us many times with his personal story of picking up Estancia High School students - young men on his beloved Eagle football team - who lived at that motel because it was the only place their families could afford.

YES, SOME ARE CRIME-RIDDEN
Yes, some of those places have become havens for crime - drugs, prostitution, etc. - which makes the plight of those forced to seek shelter there even more traumatic.  Yes, they need to be cleaned up.  Yes, the photos of some of the units presented in open council sessions shook us to the bone. 

BULLYING WAS THE MOTIVATION
But, please do not be wooed by the Register Editorial writers into going along with the premise that these property owners just magically recognized the free market as a solution.  They did not!  They have been bludgeoned into that decision by our elected leaders and their policies.

TARGETED GOVERNMENTAL TERRORISM
The owners of those properties have been the targets of a specific campaign of what amounts to governmental terrorism, spearheaded by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer.  Ever since he took a seat on the City Council he has made it very clear, in unequivocal terms from the dais, that his goal was to "help" the owners take a more realistic view of the value of their properties.  He meant they thought they were worth more than his developer-buddies wanted to spend to turn them into high density apartment complexes.

USING HIS POWER
Toward that goal - and he IS a goal-oriented guy - he unleashed the full fury of his position.  He created a brand new Code Enforcement entity, apart from the established Code Enforcement group, and had them charged with specifically making those "problem motels" the focus of their activities.   Police, Fire and Code Enforcement organizations began to pay special attention to those handful of businesses.  Fines were levied and they were publicly called-out for their perceived transgressions.  And yet that was not enough.

TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
So, with the warped "wisdom" so common with bullies, in January, 2014 he and the council majority crafted a special treat for those businesses - Title 14, Chapter VI of the Costa Mesa Municipal Code, HERE, the Excessive Use Of Resources Ordinance.  Those "problem motels" were assigned a specific number of calls for service they were permitted to make.  If those numbers were exceeded, the violating business would be subject to very significant fines.  One could almost feel the screws being tightened.

TOUGH DECISIONS
This forced some of those operators to make some very difficult decisions.  If there was an emergency - say a screaming woman in one of their units - and they had already "used up" their quota of calls, their choice was to either call the police or not, and let the chips - and the screaming woman - fall where they may.  And, of course, they kept their fingers crossed that nobody else would call, because it didn't make any difference WHO called - the penalties were the same.

THE LAST STRAW
Following months of intense focus by public safety organizations the Costa Mesa Motor Inn was the recipient of a special "inducement" a little over a year ago when the city decided to revoke it's Conditional Use Permit for long term occupancy rooms.  Straw, meet camel's back.

"LOCKDOWN"
In the case of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, they accomplished a dramatic drop in calls for service by creating a virtual - and literal - prison at their establishment.  It is on "lockdown" 24/7/365.  Based on the testimony at the recent Planning Commission hearing where their request was heard, they chose not to become operators of a prison, so they're asking for code changes so they can scrape their property and build apartments - market rate apartments, except for those few designated for moderate income folks.  But don't for a second think that doing this was a voluntary decision.  One can take only so many punches to the gut in the form of fines before you begin to see the light - while you can still see anything.

RELOCATION PACKAGE TO BE OFFERED
And, to their credit, they have planned to offer a "relocation package" to current residents who continue to pay their bill and keep their room in good condition which will include 3-months rent reimbursement plus $1,500 if they stay until given eviction notices - likely to be next June for an August evacuation date.  This could amount to $4,500 - $5,500 each - perhaps enough to secure housing elsewhere, but not likely in Costa Mesa.  In an attempt to abrogate that issue, their consultant, former Costa Mesa Director of Development Services, Don Lamm, told the Planning Commission that only 17% of the current residents of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn are from Costa Mesa.

AMAZING!
I'm astonished that the editors of the most widely-read newspaper in our county would so openly condone the governmental bullying tactics that got the Costa Mesa Motor Inn to this point.  Their last sentence is "Let the market work."  I don't think they actually envisioned the market "working" with brass knuckles, but that's the reality of this situation. 

DEMONSTRATION THURSDAY
Whether you agree with this outcome or not, next Thursday, October 22, 2015, from 5-6:30 p.m., activists from the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition - distraught at the loss of those affordable units and with no official relief in sight - will demonstrate in front of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn to draw more public attention to this issue.  And, I suspect, they will present themselves to the City Council when this issue is heard before that body. 

WHO'S NEXT?
A final question for you to consider.  Who will be next in the cross-hairs for your elected leaders?  What kind of business will next be found to be undesirable and be targeted for extinction in Costa Mesa?  We already know industrial business owners on the Westside of town are feeling pressure.  We know that Roger MacGregor - one of the most respected small boat builders in the country and an institution on the Westside for decades - saw the handwriting on the wall, retired in 2013 and his daughter decamped much of the business to Florida.  His iconic former headquarters remains a sobering reminder of what an industrial powerhouse the Costa Mesa Westside once was.


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Scarecrow & Pumpkin Festival This Weekend

OOPS!
I almost forgot to remind you of the Costa Mesa Scarecrow & Pumpkin Festival at Fairview Park this weekend!

FREE FUN FOR ALL
This FREE event at Goat Hill Junction Saturday and Sunday is open to all and will include Train Rides, Face Painting, Rocketeers, Pumpkin Picking, Fire Truck Rides  and more.  You can find out more at the Facebook page for this event HERE.

SEE YOU THERE
The weather should be perfect for this fun event.  See you there.


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Thursday, October 15, 2015

More Progress Made By Bike Committee


STILL MISSING A FULL HOUSE
The Costa Mesa Bikeways and Walkability Committee met again for their first of two meetings this month last night in the Costa Mesa Senior Center.  And, once again, the full committee failed to show up.  Those members in attendance were Chairman Ralph Taboada, Vice Chair Cynthia McDonald, Jim Erickson, Leah Ersoylu, Richard Huffman III, James Kane, Andrea Marr, Flo Martin, John Merrill, Dr. Kirk Bauermeister, Brent Stoll and council liaison Katrina Foley.  Members Kathleen Brown, Tony Capitelli, Jim Kerins and Brian Valles did not attend this meeting.
REFINING OBJECTIVES AND POLICIES
As was the case at their last meeting, in September, the group made steady progress again.  Having previously defined their 6 Goals, last night they took it from the top and began fine-tuning the Objectives and Policies, beginning with Goal #1, Promote a Friendly Active Transportation System in Costa Mesa.
SOLID ACCOMPLISHMENT
After nearly two and half hours of discussion, negotiation, cutting and pasting and general wordsmithing, guided by consultant Rock Miller and Transportation Services Manager Raja Sethuraman, they completed that first segment and it appeared that they all felt like they had accomplished a lot.  I would agree.
FOCUSED AND RESPECTFUL
It's interesting to watch this committee work.  It is a diverse group, with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests but they manage to work through issues harmoniously.  They continue to treat each other with respect and seem able to resolve differing viewpoints easily.  It's a pleasure to attend these meetings and watch them work.


ANOTHER SMALL TURNOUT
Unfortunately, there were only six of us in the audience, tops.  That varied from 4-6 during the evening.  By the time they finally wrapped things up just after 9:00 p.m. there were two of us.  An caution - if you do plan to attend one of these meetings, bring a sweater.  The room in which they meet is so cold that you could hang sides of beef in there!  Brrrr.


NEXT MEETING IN TWO WEEKS
The committee meets next on October 28, 2015 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Costa Mesa Senior Center and will begin hashing out the Objectives and Policies for Goal #2, Create a Safer Place To Walk And Ride A Bicycle.  The following meeting they will revert to the first and third Wednesday's of each month.  Kudos to the members of the committee that are taking big chunks out of their lives for this important work.



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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Library/Community Center Meeting Canceled



PRIORITIES!
Remember that study session I wrote about the other day - the one at which many aspects of the potential new library and community center would be discussed?  You do?  Well, so did a couple dozen residents.  Unfortunately, not enough council members showed up to form a quorum, so the meeting was abruptly canceled.
STAFF AND CONSULTANTS AT THE READY
When I arrived at around 4:30 for the 5:00 meeting the consultants and some of the city staff were present as well as community stalwart, Beth Refakes.  This meeting was to have been preceded by a special closed session to discuss litigation.
GENIS AND FOLEY
We saw Sandy Genis come scampering into the council chambers about 4:45, then skitter back out, heading for the closed session.  Katrina Foley showed up just before 5:00.  I don't know the whole story, but was told that Mayor Steve Mensinger was on time for the closed session, but no other council members made it, so he waited fifteen minutes, then bailed out.
ACTIVISTS ARRIVED IN TIME
So, there sit expensive consultants and representatives from the county library service, which actually manages the Donald Dungan Library, kind of tapping their fingers, waiting for something to happen.  Just before 5:00 p.m. those folks who had arrived by that time - most of the hard core library activists who have attended each of the meetings and are active participants in the process were in the room.  Brad Zint from the Daily Pilot showed up, only to be told of the cancellation.

POSTPONED TO A FUTURE DATE
We were told by senior city staffers that this meeting would likely be included in a regular council meeting in the near future.

POOR FORM
I don't know what happened today, but it's pretty poor form to have everybody BUT the council show up for an important meeting.  Maybe the mayor had a football practice to attend as a run-up for the Battle Of The Bell Friday night.  Regardless, this is just another example of some screwed-up priorities and disregard for the residents of this community.

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Planning Commission Approves Full Agenda



FINALLY!
Did you miss me?  What turned out to be an allergy attack last night had me sniffling and coughing throughout the Planning Commission meeting and just wrung all the energy out of me, so I popped a couple antihistamine tablets when I got home and hit the sack.  Not to worry, though... here's my report from the meeting.

MARINES CANDY DRIVE
During Public Comments Beth Refakes reminded us again of the Candy Drive for the children of our adopted Marines - the 1/5 at Camp Pendleton.  There's a collection box in the City Hall lobby where individually-wrapped candy may be deposited.  The stash of sweets will be delivered to Camp Pendleton next week, so rush right on over to City Hall with your donation to this fun event for the kids.

"APPROVED" CONSTRUCTION NOISE
Teresa Drain told the commission about the violation of the construction agreement at the remodeled car dealership at the corner of Harbor Blvd. and Merrimac.  Concrete pump trucks maneuvering around at 3:00 a.m. is unacceptable.  While speaking she played an audio tape of the noise so the commissioners would be sure to get the point.  Turns out the deviation was approved by Planning Staff due to the nature of the concrete pour.  Still, it's hard not to agree with Drain and her neighbors - concrete pumpers and other trucks noisily jockeying for position three hours before dawn is an unacceptable disruption of the lives of the nearby neighbors and their sleeping children.

SPEED BUMPS
An unidentified woman suggested we investigate speed bumps currently being used in a portion of Newport Beach near Costa Mesa.

STIFLING SPEECH AND SOLID LANDINGS
Another unidentified woman concurred, then complained about the attempt to keep people for addressing the commission, and referred specifically to former Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick, who apparently called folks to discourage them from speaking.  She praised commissioner Stephan Andranian for his attention to the Solid Landings issue.

COMMISSIONER COMMENTS
Colin McCarthy spoke about the recent Fire Department Open House last weekend and mentioned the Battle of the Bell football game between Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools.

CURRENT STATUS?
Andranian asked for an update on the Solid Landings situation and also an update on other recovery organizations that have been problematic on the Eastside.  Staffer Mel Lee told him that a couple of the facilities have recently been cited by Code Enforcement and one has ceased the problem activities.

SPEED BUMPS?
Vice Chair Jeff Mathews inquired of staff about the speed bumps and Transportation Services Manager Raja Sethuraman directed him to the city guidelines.

APPROVED NOISE
Chairman Rob Dickson asked about the construction noise mentioned by Drain and was told they received a minor modification to their construction plan, as mentioned above.

QUICK WORK ON THE FIRST ONE
Public Hearing #1, the tentative parcel map to subdivide and create four two-story condominium units at 2136 Thurin brought by developer Jim Cefalia was quickly passed on a 5-0 vote.

GROUP HOME ORDINANCE
Next up was Public Hearing #2, the Group Home Ordinance.  This series of slides presented last night will give you the thumbnail version of the presentation.  Among the things mentioned by the new lawyer who did the presentation - nobody even introduced him - was the fact that Costa Mesa continues to have a very disproportionate percentage of recovery facilities - both state-licensed and others - than the rest of the county.

COLIN AND THE MAP
In a fairly amusing moment - two, actually - McCarthy unfolded the huge map that identified the group homes in the city.  That exhibit is part of the staff report, but it's impossible to read because it was reduced in size.  And, there continues to be a disagreement between staff and activists who are paying attention to this issue as to the actual numbers of such facilities in Costa Mesa - activists claim a number about 40% higher than official city numbers.

SPEAKERS
Eleven (11) members of the public spoke to this issue.  Among them:

UNFAIR BURDEN ON NEIGHBORHOODS
Jay Humphrey complained about group homes that are too close to each other, observing that the current R-1 ordinance allows as much as two years for facilities violating the 650 foot rule to comply.  He observed that this is an unfair burden for the nearby neighbors.

SOCIAL MEDIA MENTIONED
Dan Huber agreed with Humphrey and observed that this issue was generating a lot of noise on social media. ( I suspect he meant on the Costa Mesa Public Square Facebook site, where several city officials pontificate to a group of residents and outsiders on important issues on that CLOSED site.)

650 FEET BETWEEN, REGARDLESS OF LOCATION
An unidentified speaker observed that this is a nationwide problem that cannot be resolved city-by-city.  She questioned the statistics on the number of facilities in town and wondered about how the 650 foot rule would be applied to this new ordinance where facilities are near to R-1 zones.  The answer was that the rule is 650 feet MINIMUM between facilities, regardless which zone they are in.

FEAR
Michele Clark was frightened by the crime and harassment being generated by group homes.

MORATORIUM?
Another unidentified resident suggested a moratorium on any more group homes, similar to what San Clemente and San Bernardino County have done.  The response to that was that you can't have a moratorium on something we are not regulating, and that this ordinance will provide that regulation.

NEWPORT BEACH AND SAN CLEMENTE
Mary, a lawyer with a long name I didn't get, is familiar with the Newport Beach and San Clemente situations and suggested complications with federal privacy laws if facilities follow our ordinance which requires staffers to have more than a year of sobriety before they can work in a facility.  She saw legal action against the city as a co-defendant.

"I WOULDN'T WANT TO LIVE NEXT TO ONE"
Nancy Clark, who told us she's' a long-time operator of a sober living facility in the city, blames the influx on the fact that "everybody has insurance now."  She said she was "shocked" to see how many group homes now operate in the city.  She left us with a comment that she wouldn't want to live next door to one of them.

AFRAID, VERY AFRAID
Other residents expressed concern and fear for their neighborhoods due to the group home infestation.

NO RELOCATION PLANS...
During the discussion concern was expressed that there is no plan for the return of folks who, for whatever reason, fail to complete their term of treatment in one of the facilities.  They are simply evicted and turned out onto Costa Mesa streets, where they typically join the growing cadre of homeless folks.  Mathews wondered if something could be put in the ordinance requiring facilities to provide transportation to drop-outs back to their state of residence.  The answer was no.

NO RELIEF FROM SACRAMENTO
McCarthy reminded us that former consultant Jerry Guarrancino journeyed to Sacramento with other staffers to plead for help from he state with their licensed facilities, hoping they would reduce the number of licenses issued and do a better job of enforcing the terms of those licenses.  It fell on deaf ears.

THANKS, AND SPEAK TO THE COUNCIL
Mathews encouraged the folks who spoke last night to attend the City Council meeting where this issue is discussed and speak out again.

"WELL CRAFTED"
Tim Sesler told us the ordinance is "very well crafted" and it's the only one in the state.  He reminded us that Newport Beach has unsuccessfully fought a legal battle on this issue to the tune of more than $8 million in fees.

WHAT'S THE INDUSTRY DOING TO POLICE ITS OWN?
Andranian wondered aloud to the Sober Living Attorney what their industry is doing to manage the bad operators.  He also wondered about the sufficiency of our Code Enforcement staff to handle the new workload.

NOW TO COUNCIL
At the end of the more than 90 minute discussion the commission moved the item on to the City Council on a 5-0 vote.

REPLACING THE COSTA MESA MOTOR INN
After a short break which thinned out the crowd of around 80 people, at 8:15 the commissioners tackled Public Hearing #3, the replacement of "problem motel", the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, with 224 "luxury" apartments.  Former Costa Mesa Development Services Director, Don Lamm, is the owner's representative and did their presentation.

PARKING STRUCTURE NEEDS RELIEF FROM RULES
According to the staff presentation, the only "variance" requested for this project is relief from the height requirement, which is technically exceeded by the five-story parking structure.

VAST IMPROVEMENT, BUT NOT AFFORDABLE
Lamm gave the history of the current motel - built in the 70's as a vacation stay place which has now transitioned into an "interim housing" venue.  It led the city in calls for service by Code Enforcement, Fire and Police.  The new facility will replace the 236 motel units of approximately 3oo square feet with 224 apartments - 1 and 2 bedroom units, some with dens - and provides more than ample parking - 503 spaces.  It will be an "amenity-rich" project, according to Lamm, and resolve the existing problem of short-term renters who create problems for the businesses nearby.
 RELOCATION ALLOWANCE
Concern was expressed about the future of the current residents, to which Lamm offered the plan to provide 3 months rent PLUS $1,500 to any current residents who stay until they are given notice to vacate - presumed to be around the first of June with a departure day of August 1, 2016 and presumes they continue to pay their rent and not trash the place.  Apparently, this plan had a positive effect on more than a few people who planned to speak to this project because, once they heard about it, they left.  I thought it was an interesting tactic.  There is no state, city or federal law that requires relocation assistance in this kind of situation.


HIGH BAR FOR MOST FOLKS
This project would also include 20% of the units for "moderate income" families - which one speaker said would be someone earning over $100,000 per year.

OFFICE OR A BEST WESTERN
When asked by McCarthy what his "Plan B" would be, the response was that they could just remain in the motel business - hook up with Best Western and keep on operating.  They prefer not to do that.  Or, since it's zoned commercial, they could convert the use to office space and quadruple the traffic impact on that stretch of Harbor Boulevard.  They also didn't want to do that, either.

ACTIVISTS UNHAPPY
A dozen folks spoke to this project.  Kathy Esfahani, Linda Teng and Richard Walker, all representing the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition, observed that the demolition of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn would severely deplete the housing stock available for low income families and expressed the view that the spaces were used as part of the calculation for affordable housing units in the city.  They expressed the view that at least 20% of the units should be made available to low income residents.  Based on their comments and the subsequent responses by the commission, staff and the applicant, there is a very wide divergence of opinions on the actual housing numbers.  Apparently we have only built one (1) affordable housing unit - half of what the state mandates.

BUSINESS OWNERS HAPPY
Speakers representing businesses in the area - the Home Depot center across the street and others - agreed that the project will help resolve the growing and very troublesome vagrancy and vandalism issue they are experiencing.

ADJACENT CELL TOWERS
Mark Austin, a lawyer with Rutan and Tucker, who represents the owner of a little chunk of property in the corner of this site, told us the site has 5 cell tower arrays leased and was concerned that the height would be a problem for those towers.  It was later observed by the commission that it was a civil matter between the two property owners.

FEEDING THE GROWTH MACHINE
Richard Huffman provided a list of recent or pending developments along Harbor Boulevard and observed that Harbor Boulevard would cease being known as the "Harbor Boulevard of Cars" and become "Apartment Row".  He said it seemed like "growth feeding a growth machine."

WEB SITE AND DEMONSTRATION
Another speaker provided a web address, www.costamesaforall.com, where information about the lack of affordable housing in our city exists and told us of a demonstration planned at 5:00 p.m. on October 22, 2016, but didn't say where.

A RECENT RESIDENT
Anna Bogner, who said she was new to the area, suggested that if folks couldn't afford to live in our area they should move elsewhere.

ANOTHER NODDING HEAD
Richard Russell agreed with her and cited the current problem with Wilson Park - a nearby community park where the city has recently locked the restrooms and removed park picnic tables.  He, interestingly, also cited the buzz on social media - again, I presume he meant the Costa Mesa Not-So-Public Square, where like-minded folks go into a closed chat room to agree with each other - including the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem plus several commissioners.

ONLY 17% ARE COSTA MESA RESIDENTS
In rebuttal to comments made and to questions by the commissioners, Lamm advised us that 83% of the current residents of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn are from outside Costa Mesa.  He cited high land costs, which make only a few uses fiscally sound.  He said land in Costa Mesa would run around $4 million per acre.

BIG INVESTMENT
Lional Levy, the Chief Operating Officer for the property owners told us that the affordable units are not renting and that they would be spending around $60 million to develop the property.  He also told us that since they implemented "security measures" the calls for service are near zero.  Those "security measures" have resulted in a facility that is very much like a prison.

PASSED, BUT ACTIVISTS WILL BE BACK
In the end, after this two-hour discussion, the commission passed this item on a 5-0 vote and included the plan for the relocation allowance so it doesn't get lost in the discussion.  This moves on to the City Council, with a very angry cadre of affordable housing advocates - who challenged the accuracy of the Mitigated Declaration filed and other numbers the city provided -  in its wake.  They will be back.

ELEMENT SKATEBOARDS
The final item on the agenda, Public Hearing #4, is the legalization of certain conditions at the site of the former Wright's Hardware store, now the headquarters of Element Skateboards, at 126 Rochester.  Presently the site is pretty shabby, and includes the placement of nine (9) shipping containers and an outdoor skate ramp, which is used for special events and for employee recreation.  It is not open to the public.

APPROVED, WITH CHANGES
Representatives of the company pledged to meet the requirements demanded by this process, but asked for 120 days instead of 60 to work with a sound engineer to determine how best to mitigate what appears to be problematic noise from the skate ramp use.  One piece of negative correspondence was part of the agenda package - an anonymous list of "infractions", most of which were clearly beyond the control of this applicant.  After more than an hour of discussion and public comments - only four people spoke to this issue - the commission passed it with some modifications, including that aforementioned 120 days, that the shipping containers may NOT be stacked on site and that the Director of Development Services will approve any plans to beautify the site - which will almost certainly include the replacement of the tacky chain link fence.  The meeting ended at 11:40 p.m.

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