April 1, 2003 - From the April, 2003 issue

Ken Pulskamp Leads Santa Clarita As Newhall Ranch Gets Set To Break Ground

In addition to the omnipresent budget crisis at the state level, local governments increasingly are being faced with the challenge of absorbing increased infrastructure costs from developments just outside of their jurisdictions. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ken Pulskamp, City Manager for the city of Santa Clarita, in which he discusses the anticipated impact of the Newhall Ranch project on Santa Clarita and the challenges of planning given the current state/local fiscal relationship.

The County is drawing up the final planning documents and is likely to approve the Newhall Ranch project next month. Can you give our readers a sense of your expectations for approval of the project and what's been the position of Santa Clarita throughout this review process?

The project has been approved by the LA County Board of Supervisors, but is being challenged in court by Ventura County as well as an environmental group. Our position has been that we wanted the developer to deal with fourteen different items before they submitted the project to the County, which they did. A lot of people talk about what a huge project this is, but this is a project that is going to be developed over several decades. What causes problems for the developers with the public is that instead of submitting a series of projects that deal with development on an incremental basis they went ahead and submitted a very large project. They've dealt with issues on a macro basis and embraced the spirit of master planning, but as a result they have paid a political price.

Most of the experiences of those who have tried to do master planning over the last two decades in metropolitan Los Angeles have not gone well because there is such a visible target for all the hopes, expectations and frustrations of those that already live there. Can you give us a commentary on how you viewed the debate as it's worked its way through the review process?

That's an interesting question and it's one that the public needs to consider. If a developer or a series of developers each submit a 200 home project, those projects can get approved one after another. After ten years, you have a bunch of little projects that don't really fit and the infrastructure hasn't been provided. If you allow ten of those small projects, when it's all said done you have 2,000 homes.

To me, from a planning prospective, it makes more sense to deal with a 2,000-unit project and make sure that it is being planned correctly and provides the appropriate infrastructure. Large projects create political problems for the developer, but if significant parts of Southern California had done it this way, we would have been better off. I would suggest that Valencia is an example of master planning that has made a community very happy.

Talk about Valencia, and even Santa Clarita, and how they've evolved over the last 15 years. What has been the role and place of master planning in that process?

If you look at Valencia, it's really a concept that was put forward by the visionary Victor Gruen. He looked at the area and tried to create a community that really was a community; with different neighborhoods that were connected with paseos, lots of landscaping and commercial segments in areas that made sense. If you talk to people who live in Valencia, they really like it. There may be things about the area that they wish were better, but in general, they are very happy to live there.

If you look at other areas that developed on a more hodgepodge basis, often people express concerns about their neighborhoods. They want to have a lot of amenities that already exist in Valencia, but it's difficult to go and put them in after the fact, after the development has occurred.

Can you talk a little bit about the infrastructure challenges, both within your city and the Newhall project, and how in a post Prop-13 world cities grapple with those infrastructure challenges?

I could talk for days about that. We have four areas I would say constitute the major issues facing the Santa Clarita Valley in terms of infrastructure: roads, schools, parks and open space. If you look at roads, it's very difficult for us to address this issue. Historically there have not been many roads built in Santa Clarita because of difficult topography-you really have to go up the canyons.

We are in the process of trying to build a road from I-5 and Route 126 across the Valley to SR 14. It's only a little over eight miles and that road is going to cost $255 million. We have been trying to get funds from a variety of sources-state, federal, MTA, developers, city-and we're keeping no stone unturned. But for a city with an annual general fund of $58 million, figuring out a way to finance a $255 million road project is a challenge. If you look at our schools we have a lot of overcrowding. Fortunately we have worked with the developers to pay significant amounts for building new schools. We were also successful recently in passing a local bond measure, which is absolutely critical. That will allow us to tie into state funds for school construction.

In terms of parks, the city has built a number of parks since incorporation, but we still have a park deficit. The same can be said of open space. We are very aggressively trying to address our infrastructure problem and we know that it's something the community feels very strongly about.

How has the budget crisis and challenges at the state level and our state-local fiscal arrangement either frustrated or enhanced your opportunities to meet these challenges?

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The state budget at this point is an absolute disaster. If you look at the state three years ago it had a $20 billion surplus. Now, depending on whom you are listening to, it has a deficit of approximately $35 billion. A $55 billion swing in a matter of a few years is just unbelievable. For us, we're most concerned about the vehicle license fee, which would have an impact on our general fund of over $7 million. When you look at the fact that we spend about $12 million on police services, that gives you an idea of how big of an impact it has on us. That's a very large number for us to swallow and it would have an impact on virtually every general funded service we provide. That is something that we're highly concerned about and have been working closely with state officials to help address.

Our newsletters have been carrying a number of interviews on state and local fiscal reform with former Senator Peace, now Budget Director, and with Assemblymen Steinberg and Campbell about their proposals. Have you any views from your role as City Manager as to what the possible solutions would be structurally for reform of state and local finance?

Cities have to start getting revenues that the state can't just take away every year. We need to be able to plan our services and not have to put together our budgets without knowing what the state is going take from us. This year, after we already adopted our budget, the state came back and started talking about taking away money that we had included in our revenues as a way to finance local government-that simply isn't right. Next year, when we're looking at potentially losing $7 million, it's devastating for local government to try and plan a level of service that makes sense for the community without knowing how much of our tax payers money will be coming back to us from the State.

We also have the situation where cities regularly are fighting with each other and with counties over sales tax. As a result, we have a fiscalization of land use and we're making decisions on where commercial ought to be and what commercial ought to be simply as a way to finance local government. Because of Prop-13, we have a situation where some people can be living right next door to each other in the same type of house and one person is paying two or three times the amount of property tax as their neighbor. We need to assemble a group of people that truly understand state and local finances and start looking at solutions that make sense for everybody-not just tweaking it, but really coming up with a way to finance local government that is fair and equitable and provides a reasonable level of services to people.

Part of what's come out of these discussions is that the win-win in California today is to put your big box retail at the edge of your jurisdiction, placing the infrastructure burden on the adjoining jurisdiction. You've got Newhall now going through approval. What's going to be the infrastructure burden on Santa Clarita of this housing development outside your jurisdictional boundaries?

With regard to Newhall, we went ahead and did an analysis of the impacts it would have on the city and got them to make changes to some of the city infrastructure. As Newhall goes through with each phase of their project, they will be getting specific plans approved by the county. The city will be working closely with the county to make sure that all of those impacts are addressed. Infrastructure continues to be an issue and it's also one of the reasons why the City and the County are planning together to make sure its as adequately addressed in the future.

What has been the city's attitude and policies regarding the Santa Clarita River as a feature of identity in the city? What role is transit, and specifically Metrolink, playing in the planning for the city going forward?

We have been a big supporter not just of Metrolink, but of public transportation in general. We currently have over three million riders on our bus system and have one of the fastest growing bus services in the country. Regarding Metrolink, we are the only city outside of LA that has at least three stations and our ridership continues to grow. Public transportation allows people to commute without having to fight all the traffic on the highways. It also helps circulation and air quality-so we are big fans of that.

In terms of the river, we very much want to protect the river. It's important to us from an environmental perspective. It's important to us from a flood control perspective. People here have a lot of pride in the last wild, unchanneled river in Southern California. We're in the process of acquiring much of the land in the river to ensure that it continues to play a key role in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Lastly Ken, some of our recent interviews have touched upon how little planning goes on in cities these days because of a lack of resources-it's more mediation than it is planning. Is there real planning being done in Santa Clarita?

Absolutely. As I mentioned, a lot of development in Santa Clarita Valley is taking place outside the city boundaries. We have been working with LA County to put together what we are calling "One Valley, One Vision" to create a plan that makes sense for the entire Santa Clarita Valley. Eventually we want to make it so that we share development standards and get to the point where, from a planning perspective, it does not make a whole lot of difference whether a project is developed in the city or the unincorporated areas. We are doing planning. We've learned a lot about planning over the years and I think if you look at the projects that are being done now, they are significantly better than the ones that were put together twenty years ago.

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