Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 12:36 pm | Fair 75º


Ron Fink: Why Aren’t Developers Building in Lompoc?

On Sept. 22, I posted a non-scientific poll on a local blog; there were a lot of responses and the results were interesting. I asked:

“An open question for the community; why do you think that developers won't build projects in Lompoc? There are currently approved housing and industrial projects on every large, open space parcel in town and yet the builders aren't building them. Meantime, Santa Maria has a building boom.”

Since the three leading issues were difficult/unreasonable permitting and approval process; incompetent city manager and department heads; and community economic demographics, I asked for specifics.

No one could cite any current issues with city management; the best they could do is complain about the cost of the Senior/Community and Aquatic centers, which were planned and built long before the current city manager was even considering a position in Lompoc.

“I hear it's a bureaucratic nightmare to try to open a business or build here, takes years to be 'shovel ready;” “had a family friend try and open a business in town and got his plans denied on multiple occasions;” and “too many rules and hoops to jump through to make the city happy. Then when you have inspections they come up with more crap.”

The planning process can be intimidating if you aren’t familiar with it. When a project is presented, it’s up to the developer to provide the proper information. Experienced developers understand what’s needed and their projects move through at a reasonable pace.

It is the inexperienced developer who wants to cut corners that inevitably runs into a bureaucratic nightmare.

And, “If the Mayor and City Manager told everyone that works under them that ‘I want you to go out of your way and bend over backwards to help businesses and make the process as easy for them as possible, and then followed through to ensure that this was what was indeed happening it would make a difference.’ ”

This is reasonable; if the staff understands that economic development is a priority and that their primary goal is to facilitate project development, then it would make a difference.

“Lompoc core people are of a poor mindset and no vision of what it could be in 5 years. Those with the vision and not vendetta get stonewalled. The city manager can do only as much as the council empowers him; is (he) blocking expansion? No; he recommends to the council (and does) not make the decisions.”

This is accurate. The politicians we elect set the tone for economic progress.

The City Council approved the 2030 General Plan, which is the long-term vision for the city; it took seven years to complete this project largely due to political tinkering. Eventually, the politician doing the most tinkering was ousted and the plan was finally approved.

Currently, city planners are updating the zoning ordinance to conform with the GP and incorporate lessons learned since it was first adopted in the late 1980s. The goal is to reduce obstacles to development, but as with all strategic policies, it will take several years to find out if it worked.

Another said: “Because we made 3 critical planning mistakes: putting the college Campus out in the boonies instead of weaving it into the walkable core of the community; allowing Home Depot to crush the locally-owned hardware/building materials stores; and allowing Wal-Mart to crush everything else. Big Business kills small towns over and over and over again.”

The college is a regional institution and needed a large space; it pays no taxes to the city, so placing it where it is, was the right thing to do.

Considering the average income level in Lompoc is well under $50k a year, competition in the retail market is fierce. Only the biggest retailers, who buy in bulk can survive on slim margins.

Another person said: “Look at how long it has taken to finish that new hotel. The new Costco in Santa Maria is either open or will open next week, it took less than half the time.”

Costco had a 24-hour-a-day construction schedule and is basically a concrete box with shelving; a hotel has a maze of plumbing, electrical wiring and heating/ventilation systems in more than 100 rooms, which was built using a standard workweek. So, this is a poor comparison.

As far as community economic demographics concerns go, few had any comments.

My guess is, one reason might be that the population of the Santa Maria/Orcutt area, with similar economic conditions, is four times that of the Lompoc valley; thus, a larger customer base.

Another could be the philosophy of city leaders in the two places; but none of the bloggers identified these issues.

But the biggest could be that these projects were approved when economic projections were much rosier than today; this was at the height of the real-estate market and profit margins were extraordinary. Maybe developers paid too much and now won’t be able to make a profit.

Both cities are focused on raising the standard of living for their residents, so why isn’t Lompoc flourishing?

Maybe it’s the combination of a larger population, the ability of developers to recover their original investment and a political emphasis on specific projects such as Enos Ranch that sets Santa Maria apart.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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