By Rashi Kesarwani
OC Voice Staff Writer
The Huntington Beach City Council was greeted by dozens of residents at its Feb. 4 meeting, as it considered an appeal of the Planning Commissions previous approval of a $22 million senior center to be built on a 5-acre expanse of Central Park, across from the Huntington Beach Central Library.
Opponents say they support a new senior center, but they are concerned about its location and environmental impact, as well as its “hidden costs” and how to prioritize use of badly needed but limited park funds.
Ultimately, the council voted to move forward with the project in a 5-2 vote. Councilmember Jill Hardy and Mayor Debbie Cook voted no.
Although Huntington Beach voters initially green lighted the project in an “advisory” ballot initiative known as Measure T in Nov. 2006, opponents of the plan argue voters were not aware of the environmental impact or costs of a state-of-the-art facility in Central Park.
City Attorney Jennifer McGrath said that no legal requirement exists to disclose environmental impacts or estimated costs of a project when it appears on the ballot for approval. Indeed, Measure T only stipulated the square footage and maximum acreage of the proposed center. It passed by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Project planner Jennifer Villasenor said the new facility would operate much like the existing Rodgers Senior Center. Although programming would be geared to the interests of seniors, all city residents would be welcome to use the facility.
In an e-mail to the Voice, Save Our Parks spokesperson Mindy White said that the city’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) notes that because the project’s impact on park aesthetics and views cannot be mitigated, the city is legally required to write a Statement of Overriding Consideration “indicating that the building of the senior center is worth the loss of the aesthetics of Central Park.”
White notes that the final section of the city’s EIR states that the “environmentally superior alternative” is to halt plans to construct a new senior center in the park.
Speaking at the city council meeting, H.B. resident Kristin Stilton cited the city’s “Park Strategy and Fee Nexus Study of 2001” to argue that the project reflected misplaced priorities. According to the study, residents ranked upgrades to the skate park as a higher priority than a new senior center.
Stilton also called Rodgers Senior Center, the current facility, “underutilized or at least not maximally programmed.”
Another city resident offered an alternative to costly new construction: Kettler Elementary School, located near a large contingency of senior citizens living in the city’s southeast section., near Edison Park. “It seems like a good fit,” the speaker said.
About a dozen Golden West College students asked the city council to preserve the park by finding a different site for the project.
But proponents of the senior center in Central Park ultimately prevailed, stating that other locations were unsuitable or unavailable.
Public speaker and former H.B. mayor Norma Gibbs referred to the proposed site as “that eyesore of dirt on Goldenwest” and urged councilmembers to allocate space for the senior center, as past councils had done for horse lovers and Frisbee players when Central Park was first designed and created.
Councilmember Gil Coerper said, “My main thing is, have a great facility for our seniors. I don’t want a mediocre one, I want the best.”
Skirting the issue of location, Councilmember Joe Carchio said, “It makes us look better and more compassionate” to have a new senior center.
In its approval last December, the Huntington Beach Planning Commission voted to require that the new senior center meet at least a lower level of “green” design standards through the Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program (The commission’s decision was appealed on other grounds).
But the city council watered down the commission’s language to “strive” to meet LEED certification, after a long discussion.
Councilmember Keith Bohr proposed the revision, saying, “When I see…the dollar amount of 80-some-thousand dollars for independent certification…. Maybe that’s something we could do ourselves without having LEED certify it.”
Hardy asked, rhetorically, “You’re gonna spend millions of dollars on paving parkland and then nickel and dime on making it somewhat environmentally friendly?”
Mayor Cook suggested further discussion of LEED standards at a later date.
Legal questions linger over funding for the facility. Proponents of the senior center expect funding to come from “in-lieu” fees paid by Makar Properties, developer of the Pacific City condominium complex. Under the Quimby Act, developers are required to set aside park land or pay an “in-lieu” fee earmarked either for park land or recreational facilities that bear a “reasonable relationship” to residents’ general benefit.
Makar hopes to pay for that fee under the Mello Roos Act by imposing a special tax on the future residents of Pacific City. But Mello Roos prevents cities from using taxes to finance pre-existing needs or facilities that do not reasonably benefit the residents of the taxed subdivision.
Opponents say that amounts to a government handout to Makar and forces a small group of homeowners to pay for a facility that under the law will not reasonably relate to their housing tract.
In any case, the senior center is an already identified need that may not qualify for Quimby or Mello Roos funds, argued a Parks Legal Defense lawyer during the public hearing.
But the city attorney has approved the funding scheme and project proponents say that as Pacific City’s residents grow older they will have a need for a new state of the art facility 2 miles to the north.