Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Deciding to Let the People Decide

Now that the Costa Mesa City Council has voted to put a proposition on the June 2010 ballot to establish planning regulations for the Orange County Fairgrounds, the real work begins. We must ensure that any ballot measure is written to provide maximum protection for the fairgrounds and Costa Mesa residents.

“Locking in the zoning” is not enough.

The existing zoning for the fairgrounds is Institutional and Recreational (I&R). That sounds pretty innocuous. But what’s permitted?

According to the Costa Mesa Zoning Code, uses permitted by right in I&R areas include things like parks, libraries, city hall, court houses and fire stations. They also include:

Churches and other places of religious assembly (Hello, TBN!)
Residential care, convalescent hospitals; and nursing homes
Day care
Country clubs and golf courses
Trade Schools

Oddly, a conditional use permit would be required for a nursery school, a primary or secondary school or college, even though trade schools are permitted by right.

A conditional use permit would also be required for a fairgrounds. So if the existing zoning were “locked in”, a fairgrounds would have the same status as any other activity for which a use permit is required, including:

Cemeteries, mortuaries and crematories
Senior congregate care facility (don’t ask me how this differs from a nursing home)
Work furlough facility (aka halfway house for convicted criminals)
Animal shelters, pounds, kennels, training schools
Medical and dental offices
Rifle, pistol, and firing ranges
Skating rinks
Transfer station for refuse, sewage treatment

I still miss the Ice Capades Chalet so kinda like the idea of a skating rink, but somehow a work furlough facility, heliport, or more offices just doesn’t do it for me.

The General Plan Is Better

The Costa Mesa General Pan requires the fairgrounds to be used as a fairgrounds. Period.

The General Plan also limits development to no more than a floor area ratio (FAR) of 0.1, which allows one square foot of building for each ten square feet of land area. That would allow about 650,000 square feet of development on the fairgrounds site. The zoning code does present the limits mandated under the general plan, but then indicates that deviations from those limits may be permitted if allowed under the general plan.

For comparison purposes, Anaheim Convention Center has a total facility area of 1.6 million square feet, including 813,000 square feet of exhibit space plus meeting rooms, grand ballroom, pre-event lobbies and other spaces. The Los Angeles Convention Center contains 720,000 square feet of exhibit hall space, plus meeting rooms, theater, lobbies and food courts.

Both of these facilities are on much smaller sites than the Orange County Fairgrounds. Without the floor area limit imposed by the general plan, who knows what could happen in Costa Mesa? Even if we kept the “Institutional and Recreational” designation. Even if we kept just the “fairgrounds” designation.

The General Plan includes a “trip budget”, too. That means that activities at the fairgrounds won’t be allowed to generate more than a certain amount of traffic. This could limit everything from building size to event scheduling. Shouldn’t we lock that in place, too?

A Specific Plan Could Be Even Better

The City of Costa Mesa is currently preparing a specific plan for the fairgrounds property. The plan is expected to reflect the existing Master Plan for the Orange County Fairgrounds. Thus, the plan would designate areas for equestrian uses, the Centennial Farm, exhibit space, administrative offices, and other uses. This would assure that existing uses could continue at the fairgrounds. A requirement that any changes to the plan be subject to a vote or the people could provide added assurance. Including the trip budget is also a must.

Don’t Bypass the Planning Process

It is imperative that any initiative specify that proposed changes would not go to a public vote until AFTER all normal the planning commission, city council and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) processing has been completed. Through this process, the City has the authority to require specific information about a project and the property from a developer.

If we were asked to vote before the normal planning process, we would only be provided the information a developer wanted us to have. Problems with traffic, drainage, or other issues could be buried. Voters must be able to make an informed choice, based on the full information that would come forth in various hearings, staff reports, and the CEQA process, not just developer propaganda.

Similar to ordinances in Redondo Beach and Malibu, any measure to change the land use shouldn't even be placed on the ballot until and unless it has been approved by the City Council through regular channels. This would provide a double layer of protection.

Don’t Charge the Taxpayers!

The ordinance must stipulate that the developer/sponsor of any amendment to city plans for the fairgrounds would pay for any referendum, just as they are required to pay the costs for any needed environmental studies. It's only fair.

The taxpayers shouldn't be required to foot the bill to tell some developer we like our fairgrounds just the way it is, thank you.


The Pot Stirrer said...

Way to go, Sandy! I'm really glad you're back in the saddle again! This post needs to be morphed into a Letter to the Editor for the Daily Pilot and/or the Register, to reach the broadest possible audience.

Anonymous said...

How come Jim Righeimer, Chairman of the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, keep saying he wants to "lock in the zoning?" Why doesn't he know "locking the zoning" doesn't get you much? Or maybe he did know?