Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Supes’ arbitrary excuses killed Artois mobile home park


By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Artois population, 1981: 240

Artois population, 2000: 209

Sitting directly north of the hamlet, across County Road 33, lies a sleepy 100 acres of land – sandwiched between the old highway and the new freeway, cut across by meandering Walker Creek.

It was once slated for far bigger plans.

In 1980, Bay Area developer James Orosco came to town with plans to build a mobile home park that would overshadow the existing city.

The 457 units would hold 1100 people, overshadowing Artois.

While Mr. Orosco touted planned features like open space, sewage treatment facilities, year-round ponds, and a community center with billiard room, conference room, and pool, many neighbors were very skeptical and extremely vocal.

In the end, their opposition not only killed the project, it unearthed a conflict of interest resulting in the resignation of the planning director.

The repercussions still rebound, and not just in county planning lore.

For example: do you rent your home, or have you bought it since 1982?

Reach into your wallet; take out a Hamilton and a Lincoln – that’s $15. Find a friend with a lighter. And set the bills ablaze.

That’s the average impact through higher payments, once a month, every month, for every renter and recent buyer, because the project didn’t go through.

And sifting through the reasons the project was denied, one finds only thin straws.

There were a couple of reasonable justifications, buried in several nonsensical ones upon which supervisors based decisions.

“The use of the gasoline alone going nearly seven miles from Orland, probably the same distance from Willows every time anyone goes out. That is extra energy being used!”

So said supervisor Stephen Blacet, giving his only explanation as to why he voted against the project in 55 pages of transcript.

And one big, broken promise.

“There is a need” for mobile homes, then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen said, before voting to block the project. “If we turn down this project, we have an obligation to develop alternatives.”

That didn’t happen.

The average household living in the park, the application said, would be a husband and wife near middle-age, along with a child or two, with income from $10,000 to $14,000. The medium family income in California in 1981 was about $15,000.

The proposed park probably wouldn’t bring additional people to Glenn County, then-planning director Ed Howard wrote after his conflict of interest was discovered, but instead “tend to concentrate some of the natural growth in one small area.”

There were a lot of unanswered questions, recalls Valley Mirror managing editor Donna Settle, then a secretary for Paul Heyrand, a leading opponent.

“Paul was opposed for selfish reasons – it would have been across the street for him,” she says. But others, she said, were worried about the flooding.

That was one of two legitimate issues in the debate; these still seem thin reeds for rejection. The other:

“‘It seems like the citizens of Artois don’t want a thousand new people here,’ then-Planning Commission chairman Vernon Vereschagin said at a hearing, recorded in a Willows Journal article.

To which a chorus of ‘that’s right(s)’ rang back.

‘We don’t care if it’s 437 or 37,’ Barbara Petersen told the commissioners. ‘We don’t want it...we don’t need it.’

‘Amen,’ declared the group.”

The land had been zoned “planned development” since 1973.

With some opponents, no dialogue was possible. Witness the following sequence at a town hall meeting, also recorded in the Journal.

“When the floor was opened for questions and discussion, one unidentified listener commented that he thought the cost of the park was too high.

‘A guy gets in over his head and you can’t get him out.’

When asked about what kind of rules the park would have, (builder James) Orosco answered, ‘Very, very stringent rules.’

The man in the audience responded to the remark by saying: ‘Very stringent rules. That makes them come into town and do what they want. These kids will come into town and they all have their cigarettes in their pockets and they’re not Lucky Strikes.’

Mr. Orosco responded to the remark: ‘I disagree with every single thing you say.’”

The legitimate concerns

Supervisors focused on two substantial points, sometimes buried in lots of additional armchair quarterbacking. (We’ll get to that later.)

But even these are thin straws for rejection.

Concerns over flooding were rebutted in the final public hearing. And making Artois a population 1300 town –would that be good or bad? It’s hard to tell.

Recognizing that the project was going to be built in a floodplain, the county planning commission required the developer to provide flood protection through levees or fill.

The issue was then: won’t the neighbors get flooded?

An engineering consultant hired by Mr. Orosco reported that if the project was developed according to its recommendations, it “should not adversely affect flooding in the City of Artois [sic],” though “the 100-year flood elevations would be increased by as much as (1/4 foot) in a 1000-foot reach of Walker Creek downstream of County Road 33."

In other words, the worst flood every hundred years would be about three inches worse, for about a thousand feet of Walker Creek.

That hundred-year flood would be eight inches above the minimum road elevation, but planner Christy Leighton said that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Some water would flow back into the development,” she wrote. “But the flow can be prevented with a berm, which the developer promised to incorporate.”

In the hearing, advantage goes to the developer, who said that he already planned to rip-rap Walker Creek to avoid the problem.

Meanwhile, opponents’ lawyer Ken Hopkins looked rather foolish, charging that the plan didn’t show Mr. Orosco’s proposal, only to be rebutted by county engineer Tom Landon and admitting that he hadn’t read that part.

Then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen recalls flooding being the primary concern – a memory not supported by the transcripts of the main hearing, in which supervisors focus at length on irrelevant concerns.

“If it flooded there, then the rest of the county would be paying for it,” Mr. Hansen says.

He recalls an incident when Highway 99 was covered with a foot of water.

“In response to a highway flooding, you call out the road department, the sheriffs. You don’t want to plan a facility” that will cause those sorts of impacts.

The project would have generated about $175,000 annually in property taxes, about $420,000 today and around one percent of the county’s budget. There’s no record of discussion on whether that money could offset possible effects like flooding.

The other relevant issue – what exactly the extra 1100 people would mean for – or do to – Artois was inconclusive. Still, at least one supervisor voted on that issue.

"There is little doubt that the proposed park will affect the social qualities of the Artois area,” planning director Ed Howard wrote to supervisors after the conflict-of-interest scandal broke.

“The growth-inducing impact on the Artois area will be significant and Artois may lose some of its "small town" characteristics. The mobile home park along will probably not bring additional people to the County, but will tend to concentrate some of the natural growth in one small area.”

But planner Ms. Leighton wasn’t overly concerned.

"Some of the existing neighborhood commercial areas in Artois could be developed or redeveloped,” she said, noting that “seventy years ago there was extensive commercial development in Artois.”

How much people were concerned is up for debate. Certainly, those opposed were vocal about it. Later Journal articles note their opposition. But an earlier Journal article notes the rather different flavor of a September 1980 town hall meeting in Artois:

“‘Let’s get the show on the road and get the little town of Artois back on the map.’

“That remark, made by Artois resident Frank Sousa, seemed to sum up the majority of comments made by Artois citizens” on the proposed park.

Western Modular Company circulated a petition in favor of the project that, they write in an accompanying document, garnered 75 signatures.

Today, Mr. Hansen says he “doesn’t recall” Artois people mad.

But to supervisor Jean Rumiano then, expressed concerns were essential.

“I find it very difficult to say, ‘Yes, I want to make Artois a big place,’” Ms. Rumiano said. “I have a hard time in my own conscience trying to come to terms with 426 units in a community the size of Artois.”

It was on that conviction, she said, that drove her to make a motion to block the development.

The armchair quarterbacking

But most of the issues supervisors raised were mere armchair quarterbacking.

That is, minding the developer’s business, instead of the county’s business.

What makes a legitimate concern?

“Pointing to something site-specific,” Mr. Sprague says. He gives examples: if sewer systems are insufficient and “you can’t guarantee the toilets will flush, or it will have adverse affect on an intersection, or it won’t have fire protection.”

What isn’t germane to a project’s approval or reject, Mr. Sprague says, are numerous miscellaneous details. A planning commissioner that doesn’t like the floor plans, or interest rates, or trying to do social engineering – going above zoning in imposing a personal vision on the county.

We read Mr. Sprague the supervisors’ quotes below, without naming names; his responses are in italics.

In the meeting that killed the park, then-district 4 supervisor Jean Rumiano aired at length two complaints. She represented neither as an overriding concern.

First, she said, there was no demand for mobile home parks. Moreover, after a calculation using 16.5 percent interest, she concluded: “what good is a mobile home park if nobody can afford to live there?”

That’s a developer’s concern,” Mr. Sprague says. “16.5 percent interest – you should have reasonable amount of confidence it wasn’t going to be forever. The state of the economy at the time, interest rates, that should be left to the developer.”

Three years before, interest rates had been at eight percent, and four years later, they would be again.

(Ms. Rumiano also briefly mentioned that she “feels better” about this project, because it was not going to be built on class I soils.

That’s a strange worry: putting the numbers in perspective, the project would create homes for 3 percent of the county’s population, by using 0.05 percent of the county’s farmland. Perspective, anyone?)

But while Ms. Rumiano seemed to think herself better able to judge the needs of mobile home residents than the developer, district 3 supervisor Fred Pride extended his area of expertise to the entire county housing market.

Before seconding Ms. Rumiano’s motion, Mr. Pride commented:

“In regard to a no project, I don’t feel that this project best serves the needs of our community. The overall future general housing needs of Glenn County might be best constructed in locations and in such manner as to better serve specific needs.”

That’s a real good example of someone doing the social engineering. That should be up to the developer.”

Moreover, Mr. Sprague says, it’s just an opinion.

If they can provide numbers that show no mobile homes, there are four mobile home parks within three miles, with 60 percent vacancies” – that would be a different thing.

I would say, Mr. Supervisor, you have to show me your facts and figures,” Mr. Sprague says. “Otherwise you’re just saying, ‘I don’t feel.’ ‘Statistics show’ or ‘history shows’ – but ‘I feel’?”

Mr. Supervisor, I don’t give a shit about how you feel. Forgive the expression.”

District 1 Supervisor Stephen Blacet followed Ms. Rumiano in divining the desires of potential residents, while also seeming to appoint himself county transportation commissioner.

‘The idea of a project is good,” Mr. Blacet began, making his only remarks in the hearing. (He spoke for less than a page, in a 55 page transcript of the discussion.)

But: “It is a fact that we are going to have to start and bring up the future of transportation in this County; I can see that this problem is getting bigger. There will be more demand. I only wish it were closer to a large city, either Orland or Willows.

“The use of the gasoline alone, energy, going nearly seven miles from Orland, probably the same distance from Willows every time anyone goes out, that is extra energy being used. The police and fire protection would be better, if they were closer to a big city.”

There’s a prime example of someone with a particular agenda,” says Mr. Sprague. “Someone’s concerned about energy conservation. That’s an opinion that they’re hanging their hat on, as opposed to a fact like ‘we need a traffic light.’ Distance concerns, fuel concerns – that’s not a germane argument.”

Immediately thereafter, he voted to deny the project – solely, it appears, on worries over how much residents would have paid for gas.

A detail that they would presumably be aware of when moving in. Especially because potential buyers, planning director Ed Howard said, would mostly be county residents – and thus familiar with the area.

And GlennRide started in xxxxx.

Mr. Hansen recalls a another points of concern, on which his memory seems to err: whether the county would have been stuck with a bill if the project folded.

“If we would have built it and the housing market would have changed, would we have had a lot of empty trailers?” Mr. Hansen asks. “Maybe we would have.”

At the time, asked what would happen if the development didn’t pan out, he took a more positive tack: “Well, you are going to have an awful lot of recreation facilities for nothing.”

And when asked why supervisors denied the project, Mr. Hansen doesn’t repeat any of the above reasons. He recalls the main problem at the time being flooding.

Other supervisors too, or just him?

Others were concerned “for the same reason,” he says. “Flooding and everything.”

That’s a legitimate concern,” Mr. Sprague comments, his voice rising as if he’s finally found a needle in a haystack.

Still, at least when examining the transcript, supervisors’ votes seemed to have been driven by far, far less relevant matters. Even Mr. Hansen: he was involved in the flooding discussion, but didn’t mention it in his conclusion before voting.

In fact, his concluding speech was all positive things about the project, and the developer. Mr. Hansen said only two things to the contrary: “I have to agree with all Jean (Rumiano) said” and his conclusion:

And the killer:

“I will not approve myself a 450 unit project, I would agree with a smaller project in that area, because I think that a smaller unit would then satisfy our needs in the county and that’s what we should be looking for, what is best for the county.”

That’s happened to him before, Mr. Sprague says. If current zoning allows 6 units to the acre, and he presents a project that has 5.5 to the acre, “so many times, you’ll still get an official that says, ‘That’s still too dense to me, I’d go with it, I’d go for 4 to the acre.’ And now, because of your own opinion, you’ve changed the threshold. They’re throwing in their opinion and an element of social engineering.”

...and the unfulfilled promise

Mr. Hansen preferred a 100 or 150-unit proposal.

“There is a need,” he said. “If we turn down this project, we have an obligation to develop alternatives.”

That didn’t happen. For one thing, less than 100 mobile homes were built total in the next five years in the entire county. Planning records from that time period show only 72 mobile home constructions in county limits.

(That doesn’t include inside city limits, but there has never been a mobile home park in Willows, and only 52 mobile home spaces exist inside today inside 1981 Orland city limits, making it unlikely 28 were built in a five-year period.)

And when the developer went along with Mr. Hansen’s suggestion, the developer and came back with a new project, the supervisors weren’t exactly jumping to make his life easier. He asked to use the environmental impact report from the bigger project, figuring any impact from a smaller project would be, well, smaller.

(The developer wasn’t happy about the smaller size, saying scale was essential to the project. The larger project would have included a community center with fenced pool, billiard room, card room, and conference room.)

But the supervisors denied this request too.

That, at least, wasn’t Mr. Hansen’s fault: he voted for Mr. Orosco’s request, so the pro-development side went down 2-3 instead of 1-4.

Western Modular’s frustration was obvious; it would soon bubble over into a lawsuit.

“During the 10 month period our application has been before the county, our opponents, including their attorney Mr. Kenneth M. Hopkins, have continually argued that the development should only be approved in a "scaled-down" version,” they wrote in their request.

And then when they asked to build the scaled-down project, the board wanted them to do extra leg work.

Mr. Hansen remembers the need for mobile housing today, as well.

“I did feel that we did need it at the time.”

“If we had built it, and the housing market would have changed, would we have had a lot of empty trailers? Maybe we would have had.”

That would be a bad thing, he opines.

The lone dissenter

Chairman George Edwards was the holdout, pleading unsuccessfully to his colleagues and to the packed supervisors’ chambers.

“There are certain things we would like to have happen. As Keith (Hansen) said, it would be nice if there were a smaller park. But you also have to remember that you have to have somebody who is willing to come in and do the developing. But we have to have someone willing to do it.”

In the end, he was on the short side of a 4-1 vote.

The shady scheme

The Artois mobile home project has gone down in local planning lore – for an unfortunate reason.

For his semi-shady dealings, planning director Ed Howard was fined $6,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and subsequently resigned at a closed session of the board of supervisors.

In 1979, Mr. Howard paid $10 for an option to purchase 121 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 5 near Artois.

On March 14, 1980, he traded that option exchange for a one-third share of the land, purchased by William and John G. Baker for $125,000, and on April 14, the trio signed a purchase contract to sell the property to Mr. Orosco for $525,000, contingent on the latter obtaining the necessary permits.

On May 21, Western Modular applied for a use permit for the mobile home park.

To avoid conflict of interest charges, on May 29, Mr. Howard formally transferred his share in the property to the Bakers, who on the same day transferred the entire property to Mr. Orosco.

"Mr. Howard realized in excess of $133,000 in profit on his investment of less than $42,000 in fewer than 90 days,” charged Willows lawyer Ken Hopkins, hired by local opponents to fight the park.

But Ed Howard took an active role in the planning process until – and didn’t shut up after – his financial dealings were uncovered.

He maintained that the deal was done, and he had no financial stake in the projects’ success, calling allegations against him a “witch hunt.”

He concluded one document written after the news broke: "by making this recommendation for approval, I am sincerely stating my beliefs as a professional planner...I have no financial or personal interest in the project."

Recalling the incident, a heavy note of annoyance comes into Mr. Hansen’s voice – as if he’s speaking about a misbehaving child that should have known better.

“I went over to his office three different times,” Mr. Hansen recalls. “Said to him, ‘you’ve got an interest in this.’ But he couldn’t help voicing his opinion. He was so happy he got involved in some sort of a deal.”

The aftermath: a lawsuit

Former county auditor Joe Sites recalls the views of disenchanted former county planning director John Benoit.

“John finally made it clear to me that county planning has nothing to do with planning,” Mr. Sites remembers. “He said it was just to avoid being sued.”

A basic criterion of planning success – but even that failed here.

Not withstanding Mr. Hansen’s complements to Mr. Orosco for his “character and strength” for the months the battle went on, the developer wasn’t happy.

Frustrated with spending $100,000 futilely in the development process, he paid more money to lawyers and sued for a rehearing, claiming the board of supervisors rejected the project capriciously.

Supervisors “made absolutely no findings with respect to (the) use permit application and the factual basis for the denial,” the lawsuit read. “The analytical processes of the board of supervisors are unknown to Petitioner.”

To this, the supervisors “denie(d) generally and specifically, conjunctively and disjunctively, each and every, all and singular, the allegations.”

Legal-speak – got to love it.

A court date was set for May 20, 1982 – over a year after the project was turned down. What happened is unclear; the court files cut off.

The project’s defeat motivated citizens to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

At a later planning commission hearing, a “triumphant army” of 25 Artois residents marched out of the courthouse across the street to the planning department to request the property’s rezoning, with Helen Mathison collecting $5, $10, and $20 bills to pay for the $250 application fee.

The success of that operation is unknown. Attempts have been made since to develop it; in 1987 county Planning Director Danny Mao tried to get it the area rezoned commercial to encourage highway businesses. But residents again argued flooding.

“The biggest flood zone is between (Highway) 99 and I-5,” Artois resident Bernard Kaiser told Mr. Mao. “You haven’t been there in a long time.”

Today, the property still sits there, growing crops. Mr. Sprague says that for the last three years, it’s been in the hands of a developer. They’re creating a master plan for the area.

It could have been a big plus for the county.

Consider: what impact does the construction of housing for 1100 people have on everyone else?

Secondary effects are purely speculatory: whether more housing would have attracted jobs that didn’t appear, or deterred construction that did occur, so we’ll disregard them.

But there are direct effects. Simply put: more housing means cheaper rents for everyone.

To measure how much rents would fall, economists have a term called “price elasticity of demand.”

Basically, that means: if supply increases by 1 percent, by what percent does price fall? Very conservatively, we’ll estimate that figure as 0.75 percent for Glenn County.

(You can read more about how we got that figure in the story, “What does new housing do?” on page ***give a page number*****)

457 houses would be 4.28 percent of the houses in Glenn County.

4.28 percent times 0.75 is 3.2 percent.

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Glenn County was $439 per month in 2006.

Multiplying, 3.2 percent times $458 is $14.09 per month.

So if the Artois mobile home project appeared, ready-built on the land tomorrow, that’s how much the average renter would save.

Once a month. Every month.

It’s good to know the supervisors look out for the Glenn County underclass.

Summary: (box this)
What? An 1100-person mobile home park proposed on a parcel north of Artois.
Who? Proposed by San Jose-based developer James Orosco
When? 1980
So what? If built today, it would lower rents by at least $15 per month for the average one-bedroom apartment in Glenn County.
For: Some local merchants, some Artois residents wanting to put the town back on the map.
Against: Very vocal Artois residents, who wanted the town kept small.
Killed by: Four supervisors: Keith Hansen, Jean Rumiano, Fred Pride, Stephen Blacet.

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