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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trancas Highlands District Debate Is Complex and Contentious

• Property Owners Engage in Email Campaign Over Validity of HOA and Inclusion in Boundaries

BY BILL KOENEKER

A debate started after a number of Trancas Highlands homeowners descended onto Malibu City Council chambers last week to address potential water district assessments as high as one million dollars.
Currently, many of the homes in the highlands do not have potable water and have water trucked to them and stored in tanks.
Apparently the public discussion has brought more dissenters to the forefront who are unhappy with other aspects of the formation of the assessment district.
“I have read the articles in the local newspapers published this week about a proposed water and gas assessment district for Trancas Highlands. It is unfortunate that the [residents] of Trancas Highlands have suffered for years without water and have had to rely on their water being trucked in weekly to each of their residences,” wrote Robin Barton Peterson, in an email exchange obtained by the Malibu Surfside News.
“As you know this assessment district has been proposed by the leaders of the Trancas Highlands Homeowners Association and for some unknown reason, the principal leaders of this project are trying also to include certain properties into this assessment district that are outside the boundaries of the Trancas Highlands HOA.”
Barton Peterson notes in her missives to the HOA leasder that her property has working wells and does not need water.
The property is outside the city limits and it appears that the land is actually in another water district, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District and not L.A. County Waterwork 29s. She contends none of the engineers hired by the HOA as consultants ever met with her or visited the property, which lies directly north of Anacapa Drive known historically as the Kincaid Ranch, or more recently as Trancas Vineyards.
“If my property is not taken out of the assessment district, then at the appropriate time, I will use the courts to make a determination, which we both know could cause years of delay. I am of the firm opinion it is better to work with your neighbors, but if forced and not mater what the courts may initially decide I will keep this project tied up in court as long as possible. In the meantime, perhaps it is best that I also start making my feelings be known through our local newspapers and other form of media available,” wrote Barton Peterson in her reply.
Scott Tallal, who is one of the HOA members spearheading the formation of the water district, has replied that the issue is more complicated hat it first appears.
“Trancas Highlands HOA is not in fact trying to include certain properties that are outside the boundaries. It is our understanding that state law prohibits us from manipulating the proposed boundary map in any an and that the city of Malibu and we have not say in the matter,” replied Tallal.
The HOA head went on to say that the engineering consultants Penfield&Smith make determinations regarding project benefits.
 “We and the City of Malibu are not able to force them to include or exclude any property including yours. They are the ones who have made the determination that your property will receive any benefits and it is our understanding that California Law therefore requires that your property be included. No one involved with the HOA is an expert in analyzing or assigning the benefits associated with this project. This is not a decision, which was made by us or by the City of Malibu. Rather, widely recognized and respected award-winning industry experts in this field made the decision and they've told us that under state law they have no choice but to include your property. In short, your dispute appears to be with the State of California and the way the law is currently constructed. I'm by no means an expert in the legalities involved, but to me it seems unlikely that any court would enjoin us from proceeding when this process has been followed to the letter of the law”
Tallal has said the entire project including undergrounding utilities, plus a water tank is estimated to cost $17.4 million. The undergrounding of utilities constitutes approximately $4.4 million of the price tag.
The TRHOA had petitioned the city for formation of a special assessment district to fund design and construction of public water facility. Other utility improvements proposed include undergrounding electric lines and extending underground natural gas, cable and telephone lines.
Tallal said the Kincaid Ranch was included because Penfield&Smith has determined that while the Barton Peterson property would not be liable to share any of the costs associated with the water, gas or telecom lines, it would in fact benefit from improved fire protection, improvements made to Trancas canyon road and the removal of above ground utility poles
“Penfield&Smith has projected that the 'worst case' estimate for your share of these costs would equate to a payment of just over $600/month and that it might end being a little less.
Last year, moving forward with the formation of the Trancas Highlands Utility Assessment District, the city council, without comment from the council or the public-there were no dissenters at the time, authorized the city manager to negotiate and execute an agreement with Penfield & Smith to provide consultation for the formation of such a district.
The chief engineer on the project is Patrick Reeves who said the draft engineering report was submitted to the city's public works department several week's ago.
He said the document could be considered the “Bible” of the project and includes the total amount of money chargeable to the assessment district, the amount chargeable to each parcel in the district, the duration of the payments, the reason for the assessment, the basis upon which the proposed assessment was calculated and a summary of the ballot procedure.
The report would also include a description of the improvements or services to be financed through the special assessment, the proposed district boundaries and a description of the special benefits, which each parcel receives as a result of the assessment.
The reason for this is Proposition 218, which was approved by California voters in 1996, and requires that all assessment districts must be supported by a detailed engineer's report prepared by a registered professional engineer and voted upon by the affected property owners. The voter-approved measure also establishes a common formation and ratification procedure for all special assessment districts.
Prior to creating an assessment district, there must be a public hearing and the district must receive approval from a majority of the affected property owners casting a ballot.
All owners of property within the assessment district must be mailed a detailed notice of the public heading and a ballot in which to voice their approval or disapproval of the proposed district at least 45 days prior to the hearing.
The district would include Trancas Canyon Road, Anacapa View Drive and the surrounding gated private streets and access easements in the Trancas Highlands neighborhood, according to city officials.
Assessment district proceedings must be abandoned if a majority of the ballots received by the conclusion of the hearing protest creation of the district. Ballots are to be weighted according to the proportional financial obligation of the affected property, the larger the financial obligation, and the greater the weight that must be assigned to that property. Once an assessment is created, it may be repealed or reduced by popular initiative.
When an assessment is challenged in court, Proposition 218 specifies that the agency carry the burden of proof in showing that the property is receiving a special benefit and that the amount assessed is proportional to, and no greater than, the special benefits conferred.
A resident on Anacapa View Drive maintains that Prop 218 makes it illegal to force specific property owners to pay for what he calls general benefits for the broader community because of the fire protection benefits.
“The general benefit of fire protection for homes and communities needing the fire department to save their homes and businesses and churches and schools as the entire 500,000 gallons of stored water will be a part of the district 29 system and available to fight fires well beyond the Trancas Highlands area.”
“The city must cover the costs not the 66 private property owners who happen to live closest to the new water tank being built for water District 29.
“This water project is not a private water system all to its own, that buys water from district 29 and stores and sues it solely and only for its own use. District 29 will own the new tank and the entire addition to their system.”
 The homeowners within the proposed district have deposited $86,200 with the municipality, which will be used for studies of special tax, utility engineering, bond and legal counsel for the formation of the proposed utilities undergrounding district and water distribution system.
In addition, the planning commission approved a coastal permit for the construction of a public water system and dry utility infrastructure improvements in the highlands neighborhood and the installation of a 500,000-gallon tank.
Most of the neighborhood's residents had shown up in chambers to urge the planning panel approval of the request.
“The entire neighborhood is here,” said Tallal at the time. “This is about fire protection. We desperately need this.”
Commissioners were assured the additional water would not be growth inducing, that it was designed to “just serve the neighborhood,” including 18 new fire hydrants.
The Trancas Highlands HOA successfully sought a permit for a project, which calls for the 500,000-gallon water storage tank constructed on a vacant lot at 31537 Anacapa View Drive, which is located in the northwest corner of the neighborhood, according to planning department documents.
No public dissent was heard from any of the residents until last week. City Manager Jim Thorsen said the city and the HOA have been working together for several years.
He said the time frame calls for Los Angeles County to put it on its agenda, which should take six weeks and then the city would put it on its agenda. The board of supervisors is the governing body of the water district.
 “There are a lot of [other] homeowners who feel the city is moving too slow. The assessment district needs to vote. If the majority of the vote is no, then there is no water system,” Thorsen said. “If they do want to continue to move forward, it is a matter of what kind of assessment-only for water or for water and gas or all of the utilities. It certainly is an expensive project.”
At last week’s meeting, council members held out little hope the city could help in any other way than it is now. Mayor Lou La Monte said, “The issue belongs to you people. What you are talking about should be resolved. The costs are astronomical.”
The HOA proposes forming a special assessment district to fund the extension of a public water line from Trancas Canyon Park north along Trancas Canyon Road and within the gated private streets of Anacapa View Drive, Beach View Estates Drive and Foxview Drive. The assessment district would encompass about 66 parcels and 209 acres, according to municipal planners.
Water would be obtained from a booster pump station constructed at Trancas Canyon Park, near an existing Los Angeles County Water District No. 29 storage tank that would pump water up to the new tank.
Fire hydrants, two pressure reducing stations, valves and other appurtenances would be constructed along the public and private streets.
An additional “dry” trench is also proposed for undergrounding existing overhead electric lines and extension of utilities such as natural gas and cable.
Once underground utilities are installed, overhead lines and poles would be removed. The underground wiring is a safety factor.
The HOA will form the assessment district to fund preparation of final-engineering and construction plans.
The water system and utility plans would be designed in compliance with Water District 29, Los Angeles County Fire Department, City of Malibu and utility provider requirements.

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