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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 6:58 pm | Fair 57º


Lompoc City Council to Reconsider Prior Vote on Funding Motorsports Park

Delays in meeting deadlines could put the city at risk of losing $345,500 if council votes to proceed with the long-delayed project near airport

Lompoc City Council members will again take up a controversial motorsports park proposal Tuesday evening that has the community divided on whether the project should be allowed within city limits on Lompoc Airport land near residential neighborhoods.

But the question now before the council is whether it should authorize more city funds as an unsecured line of credit provided to the project’s sponsor — the Lompoc Valley Park, Recreation and Pool Foundation (LVPRPF) — and risk the possibility those funds won’t be repaid by a state grant the city was awarded in 2013.

The motorsports project — planned on 39 acres of airport land as an off-highway vehicle riding area and an 1/8-mile drag strip — was first proposed in June 2012 with promises from LVPRPF that it would be completed and operated at no cost to the city. 

The project has been dogged by significant delays and missed deadlines, requests by LVPRPF to delay the timing of payments it agreed to make to the city, and the discovery in May that an environmental assessment under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will be required in addition to a state Environmental Impact Report (EIR). 

That confirmation of additional requirements by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) led the council to vote 3-2 on May 12 to direct staff to stop work on the project and not risk an additional $140,000 of city money to fund work on the federal requirements that could extend beyond the deadline of the three-year, $1-million state grant. 

On May 17, the council voted 3-2 to reconsider its previous vote, after listening to a packed chamber of supporters, that the project should be allowed to proceed and the draft EIR completed and released for public review. 

State shifts costs, extends deadline 

Lompoc has now received written confirmation from the state that grant funds designated for a later phase of the project — to help pay for the cost of environmental mitigation measures — can be used to pay for the federal NEPA review, estimated to cost $65,000.

The state also told the city a request for extending the grant’s December 2016 deadline “would most likely be approved,” and the deadline for the city to submit receipts for reimbursement could be extended from the end of 2016 to April 15, 2017. 

But, according to the staff report, the city is still at risk of losing $272,191 if the council votes to proceed and the city is unable to certify the EIR and complete the federal NEPA review in time to meet the grant deadline for reimbursement.  

The state also said grant funds cannot be used to pay for the updated airport master plan — a required component of the NEPA review. Per the agreement with the city, the foundation is responsible for the $73,310 cost of preparing the master plan update.

If the city advances the cost of the airport master plan, the total amount the city could be at risk of losing rises to $345,501 if LVPRPF does not have funds to reimburse the city. 

The foundation is also asking to amend the memorandum of understanding for a third time, to reduce the amount of matching funds it must pay from 50 to 26 percent, the minimum amount the state grant requires in local funding. 

If the council agrees to amend the terms of the MOU, the foundation would owe the city a total of $103,324, according to city staff, but that amount does not include the $73,310 cost to update the airport master plan and layout. 

So far, LVPRPF has deposited $55,695 with the city as partial payment for what it currently owes the city. 

That amount includes a $10,000 check the foundation gave the city on May 12, but stopped payment on when the council voted to cease work on the project, City Manager Patrick Wiemiller said. The foundation replaced the $10,000 with another check on May 18 after the council agreed to reconsider their previous vote, he said.

If the council votes to proceed, LVPRPF is proposing to pay its full share of costs — minus the updated airport master plan — with a payment of $23,930 within two days after an amended MOU is signed, and by turning over to the city $23,693 it expects to receive from a state grant for another LVPRPF project — a children’s “moto fun park” off Highway 246. 

Costly confusion over NEPA

Missed early deadlines and confusion about what the FAA would require before it could approve the non-aviation use of airport land has left the project 2-1/2 years into the three-year life of the grant without yet beginning the federal environmental review that will involve multiple federal agencies.

At the May 12 council meeting, John Linn — who has worked on the proposed project both as Lompoc mayor and as a founder and now chair of LVPRPF — cast blame for the confusion on city staff and the EIR consultant. 

“The city staff and Meridian handled the discussions with the FAA that led to the misunderstanding regarding NEPA,” Linn said.

Linn’s statement led to a tense exchange with Wiemiller, who reminded Linn that when he began his job as city manager in January 2014, Linn — who was mayor at the time — said a federal environmental review was not required.

In addition, Noozhawk has obtained a copy of an email from the FAA official overseeing the preliminary review of the project to then-mayor Linn dated Aug. 6, 2012 that states a NEPA review is required and should be paid for by the developer (LVPRPF).

The official, Marjorie Drilling of the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region office in Los Angeles, wrote that the project may also need to be coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers due to its location in a floodplain.

Drilling also wrote that the city should issue the foundation a renewable five-year permit to operate the motorsports park, instead of a lease, because a renewable permit would allow use of the land without “conveying more rights to the developer under the lease.” The FAA must approve the terms of a permit or lease for use of the airport land. 

If the council votes to proceed, the draft EIR, already near completion, could be released within a few days to begin a mandatory 45-day public comment period.  

The council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in City Council chambers, 100 Civic Center Plaza.

Noozhawk contributing writer Carol Benham is a longtime local journalist who lives in Lompoc. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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