Trancas Highlands Property Owners Sound Off on Assessment Costs
• Some Express Concern that Increasing Price Tag for Utility District Might Mean They Lose Their Homes
BY BILL KOENEKER
Acontingent of Trancas Highlands homeowners descended upon Malibu City Council chambers this week to caution about the ramifications of what they said could potentially be utility district assessments that could go as high as one million dollars.
Currently, many of the homes in the highlands area do not have potable water and must have water trucked to them and stored in onsite tanks.
Most of the homes were developed with wells, which seem to have dried out for the most part in the hilly area above Broad Beach.
"Many of us experienced 'sticker shock' regarding the challenge of financing the water project, particularly with the additional cost of taking down the telephone poles, as well as including natural gas," said longtime resident Art Mortell.
Mortell said after doing the numbers for the cost of interest over 30 years and the taxes anyone will have to pay over 30 years, in order to make the annual bond payments, "which brings the total to as much as $800,000."
Mortell said one solution might be to pay in advance, rather than incur the interest and taxes that triple the initial cost. But there was still many unanswered questions. "Paying in advance also increases the viability of selling our property when a potential buyer might otherwise be distracted by the annual cost that is added to the Los Angeles County real estate bill," he added.
Mortell told council members most residents were under the impression the bill for the utility package would come to around $50,000.
Just several weeks ago, each property owner received a document outlining the costs.
Scott Tallal, who is one of the lead activists in the Trancas Highlands Homeowners Association, said, he does not know where that figure came from. "I never told anyone $50,000 [per household].
He acknowledged there is a group of people not happy with the results. "Nobody has done anything illegal. I did not get everything I wanted. I have a well that works," he added.
Tallal said the entire project including undergrounding utilities, plus a water tank is estimated to cost $17.4 million. The undergrounding of utilities constitutes approximately $4.4 million of the price tag.
Realtor Gail Copley, who owns a vacant lot in the highlands, said property owners are asking for more time. "Let's slow it down. It is a staggering cost," she said.
She said it might be time to consider not undergrounding the gas and electric as originally proposed.
"I'm in favor of water, but considering another $70,000 for gas. We had one meeting and listened, then got the envelopes for the cost. There are hardship issues," she added.
Another homeowner, Margaret Hauptman, who was not at the meeting, told the Malibu Surfside News, "I really want the water, but I wish we could get some help. Corral Canyon. Latigo Canyon. Why was Trancas left out [for water service]? The main issue here is fire protection. And it is a hardship. Why can't we get the county or city to help?"
Tallal said the HOA has been turned down by every public agency they asked for help for fire protection.
"We looked years ago at an independent water district [run by ourselves]. But who would do the work? Who would answer the phone at 3 a.m.? Who would run the district?"
Another property owner's letter was read questioning the fairness of the assessment district and asking why certain areas were not added or excluded from the boundary line.
"It excludes at least 13 parcels located in the very heart of Trancas Highlands. It excludes at least 10 parcels located in the north portion of the Trancas Highlands. Last but not least, it wants to include several parcels not being any part of the HOA. We believe the basic legality of the proposed Trancas Highlands utility project needs to be carefully reviewed before any voting can take place," wrote Andy and Teresa Kanigowski.
Tallal said they do want to include more property owners since that would lower the costs. "We are waiting on that right now," he said.
"There is this sense that we are trying to manipulate the people. I have never asked people to change their votes. Some people are disgruntled," he added.
The Trancas Highlands group had petitioned the city for formation of a special assessment district to fund design and construction of public water facility. Other utility improvements proposed include undergrounding electric lines and extending underground natural gas, cable and telephone lines.
Last year, moving forward with the formation of the Trancas Highlands Utility Assessment District, the city council, without comment from the council or the public—there were no dissenters at the time, authorized the city manager to negotiate and execute an agreement with Penfield and Smith to provide consultation for the formation of such a district.
The district would include Trancas Canyon Road, Anacapa View Drive and the surrounding gated private streets and access easements in the Trancas Highlands neighborhood, according to city officials.
The homeowners within the proposed district have deposited $86,200 with the municipality, which will be used for studies of special tax, utility engineering, bond and legal counsel for the formation of the proposed utilities undergrounding district and water distribution system.
In addition, the planning commission approved a coastal permit for the construction of a public water system and dry utility infrastructure improvements in the highlands neighborhood and the installation of a 500,000 gallon tank.
Most of the neighborhood's residents had shown up in chambers to urge the planning panel approval of the request.
"The entire neighborhood is here," said Tallal at the time. "This is about fire protection. We desperately need this."
Commissioners were assured the additional water would not be growth inducing, that it was designed to "just serve the neighborhood," including 18 new fire hydrants.
The Trancas Highlands HOA successfully sought a permit for a project, which calls for the 500,000-gallon water storage tank constructed on a vacant lot at 31537 Anacapa View Drive, which is located in the northwest corner of the neighborhood, according to planning department documents.
No dissent was heard from any of the residents until this week. City Manager Jim Thorsen said the city and the HOA have been working together for several years.
He said the time frame calls for Los Angeles County to put it on its agenda, which should take six weeks and then the city would put it on its agenda. The board of supervisors is the governing body of the water district.
"There are a lot of [other] homeowners who feel the city is moving too slow. The assessment district needs to vote. If the majority of the vote is no, then there is no water system," Thorsen said.
"This is not something we started. We are the agency the HOA uses," said Councilmember Laura Rosenthal.
"That is correct," said Thorsen. "They came to the city for the assessment district."
"I heard a lot of scary things," added Rosenthal, who waned to know what kind of information the city was sending out.
Thorsen answered. "The city has not sent out any forms."
"I don't know the methodology," Thorsen added, saying, "If they do want to continue to move forward, it is a matter of what kind of assessment—only for water or for water and gas or all of the utilities. It certainly is an expensive project."
"I hope you can work within the HOA. Please call the city to help," she added.
Councilmember Skylar Peak noted, "The costs have been out of control. It would be good to have water. It seems outrageous for that."
Mayor Lou La Monte said, "The issue belongs to you people. What you are talking about should be resolved. The costs are astronomical. Maybe you can scale back," he said.
The HOA proposes forming a special assessment district to fund the extension of a public water line from Trancas Canyon Park north along Trancas Canyon Road and within the gated private streets of Anacapa View Drive, Beach View Estates Drive and Foxview Drive. The assessment district would encompass about 66 parcels and 209 acres, according to municipal planners.
Water would be obtained from a booster pump station constructed at Trancas Canyon Park, near an existing Los Angeles County Water District No. 29 storage tank that would pump water up to the new tank.
Fire hydrants, two pressure reducing stations, valves and other appurtenances would be constructed along the public and private streets.
An additional "dry" trench is also proposed for undergrounding existing overhead electric lines and extension of utilities such as natural gas and cable.
Once underground utilities are installed, overhead lines and poles would be removed. The underground wiring is a safety factor.
The HOA will form the assessment district to fund preparation of final-engineering and construction plans.
The water system and utility plans would be designed in compliance with Water District 29, Los Angeles County Fire Department, City of Malibu and utility provider requirements.