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Redevelopment Agency, School District Wrangle Over Property

Santa Barbara officials balk at giving away property on South Calle Cesar Chavez for new school maintenance and operations facilities

The parcel at 125 S. Calle Cesar Chavez in Santa Barbara doesn’t look like much. A mostly vacant, undeveloped lot that’s surrounded by chain-link fences, the property is bordered by Union Pacific Railroad tracks and industrial sites just a stone’s throw from Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. It’s currently used for city construction staging and parking for employees of the Casa Esperanza homeless center nearnby.

But don’t think the city will just give it away.

The Santa Barbara School District has long wanted to update its aged maintenance and operations facilities and eyed that Redevelopment Agency-owned property as a possible new location since the RDA bought it in 2001.

If school district facilities could be moved there, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said the current site on Santa Barbara Street could be used for educational purposes such as a downtown school or career-technical programs.

The urgency he feels for more property is fueled by the possibility of enrollment increases or bursts. When enrollments decreased by nearly half in the mid-1980s — and eventually bounced back — the district sold off properties and now has no real other choices for additional school sites other than the land at the district offices, Sarvis said.

As for the existing maintenance and operations facility, which was built mostly in 1929, it’s not earthquake safe or efficient enough, he said.

The district’s plans were based on an assumption that never came to fruition — that the RDA essentially would give the district the property and construct the new facilities for free.

In 2008, the city solicited proposals from the community for developing or transferring the property, but only pursued negotiations with the Santa Barbara School District, community development director Paul Casey said. While the proposal wasn’t too well-received at first, the city was willing to work with the district. Sarvis said the big concern was funding — whether the district could bring any money to the project.

Initial plans to partner with the Santa Barbara County Education Office, and possibly relocate El Puente Community School to the current property, fell through after the county didn’t approve the memorandum of understanding with the school district.

So, without a funding partner, the proposal to the city requested that “the RDA fund 100 percent of the construction and that the new maintenance and operations facility be rented to the districts at $1 a year,” according to school board agendas.

There were closed-session negotiations scattered throughout 2008 to 2010, where instruction to negotiators was given by the school board regarding a long-term lease and acquisition of the property, a change that occurred in fall 2009.

This year, a July 20 letter to the city’s RDA from Sarvis brought the district’s November bond measures into play, as possible spending includes “repair, replace or construct maintenance and operations facility.” However, bond money — if the measures pass — could not be used to buy property, even if a new facility is built on it.

“It is likely that voters would find the proposal especially attractive if the RDA commits in advance to an agreed-upon no cost transfer,” the letter states.

RDA staff brought the letter to the City Council in a closed session on Aug. 3, but giving the property away for “free plus” — for free, plus infrastructure improvements — wasn’t acceptable, said Casey, adding that the city is willing to sell or lease the property at market value.

The letter states that the vacated site off Santa Barbara Street could be used for other educational purposes, such as additional career-technical programs or a downtown elementary school, if maintenance facilities are relocated.

“The bottom line is the city does not seem interested at this point,” Sarvis said. “They’d be happy to sell us the property, which is no advantage to us.”

City Attorney Steve Wiley said no open sessions were required to discuss the letter. “It’s open knowledge that (the city) rejected their offer,” he said.

Sarvis said he sees the property discussion as part of a larger issue — the lack of local RDA funds going to local school districts.

“We have both been hard hit by budget issues, and for SBSD this has been made worse by the unavailability of the property tax revenue stream credited to the RDA in lieu of the school district,” he wrote in the letter. “We may have to rebuild right here, on Santa Barbara Street, and give up on the idea of a downtown school.”

Casey said he wasn’t sure whether any RDA money has been spent on school-related projects.

Sarvis said the district isn’t pursuing further negotiations over the site, although Casey said he sees the talks as ongoing. If negotiations fall through, it’s unclear what would happen to the property.

“The city’s in dire straits as well, and I can understand that. The state’s been taking their money,” said Sarvis, referring to state raids on local RDA monies in the past few years. “So the end of the story is, we’re anxious for it to hit (2015) so we get those property taxes.”

The property is a 2.4-acre site purchased for $2.87 million in 2001 by the RDA, according to city documents. Initial ideas for the property, such as relocating Old Spanish Days’ carriage museum and float materials, never came through as organizations found other sites to use.

A land-use evaluation and biological resources reports were prepared in 2007 and 2008 before the city requested proposals for the site, and investigations revealed some development hurdles.

“Heavy-end petroleum hydrocarbons are known to exist in some areas, and it is likely that any development on the site would require future soil testing and special treatment of excavated material,” according to a staff report.

Additionally, any development would require working around the special flood hazard floodplain area classification and providing 20 parking spaces for employees of Casa Esperanza, 815 Cacique St.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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