By Lois Henry
If there's water involved, lawyers won't be far behind. So it came as no surprise (to me, anyway) when the City of Bakersfield had its attorney fire a warning shot last week at two local water districts that had hoped to turn the bankrupt McAllister Ranch housing development into a groundwater banking facility.
The two water storage districts, Rosedale Rio Bravo and Buena Vista, bought the 2,000-acre ranch for $22 million and wanted to get water on at least some of it right away under a "pilot project."
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To do that, they needed environmental clearance, which they've applied for.
The city, however, was having none of it.
In a six-page letter sent by the city's water attorney Colin Pearce July 20, the city made clear its displeasure with the project and its demands.
The city wants the right to approve all plans, decide the level of environmental review and to be reimbursed for any costs associated with that review. It also wants the districts to immediately withdraw their application for environmental clearance.
Then there's this line:
"The City intends to separately address Buena Vista's and Rosedale's obligations under the zoning and planning standards of the City, including their obligation to reimburse the City for development fees and charges."
In other words, the city wants all the traffic, sewer and other development fees it would have received had McAllister Ranch's 9,000 houses been built as originally planned.
Ah, now we're getting to the meat of all this angst.
The city's position is that those fees are due and payable by the water districts because of an agreement with the former owner. That agreement is attached to the land, like a covenant or easement, according to the city.
That seems like a stretch to me, but I'm certainly no land use attorney.
"These are major issues for us," City Councilman David Couch confirmed. And it's not just the fees, estimated at more than $40 million just for traffic fees at full build-out.
The Westside Beltway was also penciled to cut through the eastern section of McAllister Ranch.
The beltway has been incorporated into perhaps dozens of environmental impact reports for other development projects as one of the city's main traffic mitigation measures.
Whenever a development increases the traffic burden, and they always do, planners have to find ways to alleviate that burden by widening roads or building new ones. Though it's perhaps decades away, the Westside Beltway was counted as the main traffic relief measure for most developments in west Bakersfield.
If the city can't secure the right of way for that road because it's under water (water has to be spread out in ponds before it percolates into a groundwater bank), all those other EIRs are in jeopardy, Couch said.
"I don't think (the water districts) thought about the long-term impacts to the city," Couch said.
The general managers of both districts said they had hoped to work with the city and were a bit taken aback by its aggressive stance.
As for owing any pre-existing development fees, both Buena Vista General Manager Dan Bartel and Rosedale General Manager Eric Averett didn't think that was correct.
"The original vision for McAllister Ranch went away with the collapse of the housing market," Bartel said. "We're trying to develop something that's more in line with reality."
Averett said he expects the districts and city to work out some kind of agreement, particularly on the Westside Beltway, which he said would be on a portion of the ranch they don't intend to use anyway.
There's another interesting wrinkle to all this.
Initially, one of the city's primary concerns was that the water districts would use the recharge bank to sell water out of the basin. When asked directly, Averett said no way, no how. Bartel was more cagey and wouldn't say either way.
But here's where it could get wrinkly.
What if the city makes a deal with the districts to pay some portion of those development fees but the districts have to sell water out of the basin to do it? Millions in fees? Or keeping local water local? Hmmmmm. Which would the city choose?
Guess we'll all have to stay tuned for the next installment of "As the Faucet Turns" here in Chinatow.., er, Kern County to find out.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail email@example.com