Santa Paula Times

Seismic program on shaky ground

March 03, 2000
Santa Paula City Council
The city’s downtown business district seismic rehabilitation program found itself on shaky ground when property owners and others requested that further study be done on the grant program at the Feb. 22 City Council meeting. The city has been awarded a $4.2 million federal FEMA grant to seismically shore up buildings in the downtown area, about 98 in all, said Stephen Stuart, Director of Building & Safety.Criticism has mounted over the program’s matching funds, the city’s 10 percent administrative program fees - a projected $522,000 - and if the property owners can even afford the program. Other concerns expressed during public comment noted potential merchant relocation during reconstruction as well as downtown buildings with mutual walls.Former Chamber of Commerce President Jim McCoy said “one of the biggest concerns of the chamber are the changes,” in the FEMA grant amount; FEMA is supposed to provide 75 percent of the cost with the property owner matching 25 percent, but the total cost of the project is over $12 million.Noting the program could be a repeat of the downtown revitalization “disaster” for property owners and tenants, McCoy said the chamber “feels that the city should have several workshops” before contracts are entered into. Financial assistance from the Redevelopment Agency should also be explored and a three-month moratorium for further study be implemented. “I really feel the city dropped the ball on this,” he added.Vice Mayor Don Johnson said the program runs four years and participants are able to sit down one-on-one with city staff to “figure out the nuts and bolts.”City Attorney Phil Romney said the program is strictly voluntary on the part of property owners and “they can impose their own moratorium, they have absolute control.”“I don’t see what the concern is,” said Councilman Jim Garfield, noting the council was just being asked to approve the administration process for the program.Property owner Carl Barringer said financial assistance is down to 30 cents on the dollar. “There’s simply not enough money to address the problem. Did the federal government arbitrarily slash the grant and if so for what reason?” The loan agreement is binding, he added, and if work is stopped “they can come in and cut your throat. . .my attorney wouldn’t let me sign that. Property can’t be refinanced or sold with this hanging over your head,” and buildings could stand empty, he added.
Barringer said he has a map that shows that almost all buildings have mutual walls and “what happens when one guy says he wants to do it and the other says no?”“It seems like the merchants get further and further behind,” said Chamber President Richard Garcia. “I don’t want to see this town go down. . .a three month moratorium won’t hurt anybody.” An unknown factor is the possibility of asbestos, he added, as well as added costs related to the historic designation of some buildings.Building permits and fees will be an added and as yet unknown cost, said Mike Kerr, and the “solution is information.”“Our concern is that the cost versus the owner requirements is a big unknown,” said Paul Leavens, who owns seven downtown buildings.The council voted to have two additional public meetings on the issue and reschedule the hearing to May.