County Employs Redevelopment Tools After Disastrous Fire
San Bernardino County is using redevelopment tools to help a rural community devastated by the Southern California firestorms of 2003 rebuild. The effort is one of the first times a California redevelopment agency has formed a project area specifically to aid recovery from a natural disaster.
The October 2003 Old Fire essentially wiped out the community of Cedar Glen, just north of Highway 18 at the east end of Lake Arrowhead. Although the fire spared a small commercial area and some homes, the blaze consumed 336 houses and cabins, and left behind a slide-prone landscape.
The redevelopment project’s priorities are to overhaul the water system, upgrade roads and help people rebuild in a more fire-safe manner, explained Kathy Thomas, San Bernardino County’s redevelopment director.
Overall, the firestorms of 2003 charred approximately 750,000 acres in six Southern California counties. The fires killed 24 people and destroyed 3,600 homes in total. They were followed less than two months later by deadly mudslides in San Bernardino County. Few places were hit harder than Cedar Glen, a former weekend getaway that had evolved into a rural residential community. Because much of the area is covered with “tent lots” of 2,500 square feet, houses sat very close together amid the forest, which helped to spread the fire. In addition, nearly all roads are narrow, winding and unpaved, and the privately owned water company was unable to deliver adequate flow to firefighters.
The county Board of Supervisors approved the 837-acre redevelopment project area in November 2004. Approval was controversial in part because the father of Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who represents Cedar Glen, owns a number of parcels within the project area. Hansberger did not vote on project formation, but he has since participated in redevelopment decisions and has been the project’s champion on the board. Hansberger contends he has no conflict of interest, and county attorneys agree.
Residents expressed frustration with redevelopment for a while, saying the county was moving too slowly and making too many unilateral decisions. But a personnel change that resulted in Thomas’s hiring appears to have improved communications, and on-the-ground improvements are starting to become visible. “
We had a real rough start with the Cedar Glen redevelopment project,” said David Stuart, executive director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, a nonprofit organization formed after the fire. Contentious issues remain, but the situation is more positive now, he said. “Everything that I’ve seen out there has been for the good of the people,” Stuart said.
In late 2005, the Board of Supervisors approved a $10 million loan from the general fund to the Cedar Glen redevelopment project. Between that loan, federal funds and revenues from the resale of land that the redevelopment agency has acquired through tax sales, the project will have about $17 million available, Thomas said. There are no plans to issue tax increment bonds.
Of the county’s $10 million loan, $1.2 million is going for three housing programs that provide loans or grants to people who are rebuilding or making existing structures more fire-safe. Another $500,000 was designated for land acquisition, $450,000 for road and water design, and $250,000 for business assistance. Thomas estimated that the water system and roads need at least $8 million to $10 million in upgrades.
The privately owned Lake Arrowhead Water Company, which serves about half of the project area, was antiquated, and the redevelopment agency is in the midst of purchasing the company out of bankruptcy. The water system will become a county special district.
“There are massive, massive improvements needed,” Thomas said.
The same could be said of the road system. Back in 2003, firefighters avoided some areas because the roads were not wide enough for two vehicles and lacked turnaround points. The redevelopment agency has acquired more than 100 tax-defaulted parcels, and some of those will be used to widen roads, and create turnouts and turnarounds. The county also intends to improve road drainage. Major construction on the water system and roads is scheduled to commence in the spring.
Stuart said the road work is essential because some insurance companies will not provide insurance until there is a paved loop providing two routes in and out of the residential cluster.
The redevelopment agency has also begun work on a lot-merger program. Although the county has eased building standards and is willing to grandfather in homeowners who are rebuilding, officials want new homes to have more defensible space around them. The area’s multitude of 2,500-square-foot lots won’t do, so the county is encouraging landowners to acquire adjacent lots and merge them.
“Many of the long-time residents thought it was a good idea,” Thomas said. “The real difficulty here is, how do you help those who are landlocked or who don’t have the finances to buy the lot next to them?”
Many tax-defaulted properties will become available in May, Thomas said, and the county is considering ways to give neighboring property owners first shot at acquisition. The county also is considering waiving lot merger fees if people combine only a few lots. Stuart urged the county to waive those fees, which, he said, only make rebuilding that much more difficult.
Because Cedar Glen is a disaster recovery project area, the county has only 10 years to incur debt, 10 years to conduct activity, and 30 years to pay off debt, Thomas said. Those timelines are significantly compressed from typical redevelopment deadlines.
Only about 35 houses have been rebuilt, and approximately 25 more have been permitted. That seems slow to Cedar Glen residents, but it is faster than the redevelopment agency anticipated. Thomas said total tax increment revenue is estimated to be $18 million to $29 million, depending on the rate of rebuilding.
Bayview Hunters Point Plan Challenged
Opponents of San Francisco’s 1,300-acre redevelopment project in Bayview Hunters Point have a filed a lawsuit in hopes of forcing a referendum vote on the project.
The city approved the redevelopment project in May 2006 primarily to boost affordable housing opportunities (see CP&DR Redevelopment Watch, September 2006). Opponents filed enough signed petitions to force the project onto the ballot, but City Attorney Dennis Herrera blocked the referendum. He said that petitions were invalid because they contained only the ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisors, not the entire redevelopment plan.
Redevelopment opponents, who contend the project does not reflect local desires and will increase gentrification, filed a lawsuit in mid-December seeking to force the referendum onto the ballot and to halt the city from implementing the plan until there is an election.