Commercial property beautification, maintenance program moves forward with financial incentive plan

By SARA HALL

A majority of City Council this week agreed to move forward with proposed commercial district beautification and property maintenance program, including a financial plan to encourage property owners to participate.

Councilmembers on Tuesday (June 25) voted 3-1 (with Councilmember George Weiss dissenting and Councilmember Bob Whalen absent) in support of the program, along with an incentive plan that would reimburse community development fees (up to the identified max amounts) for property owners who completed qualifying projects. The action also directed staff to return with an ordinance. The program will run for a 12-month period starting on July 9 (the scheduled first reading of the ordinance).

Mayor Sue Kempf also added the condition that they work on a smoother and more expedited permit/planning process going forward. She also suggested including the public works department in the recognition portion of the program so the city can also acknowledge the work of their own employees.

The program was identified as a priority at the council’s planning workshop and an ad hoc committee (Kempf and Councilmember Mark Orgill) has been working with staff and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce on the project.

They spent a lot of time walking around the Downtown, Kempf noted.

“We all like the charm of the town, but when you really walk around and really look at the town, you can see that there’s a lot of deferred maintenance and there’s a lot of neglect on some properties. So we want to try to get that cleaned up,” Kempf said. “Our town does look kind of shabby when you really take a close look at it.”

Kempf also mentioned plans to improve the local landscaping and code enforcement. She’d also like to work on signage to be more uniform, uncluttered and well-presented.

She suggested a “charm challenge” by first promoting the program and then acknowledging as property owners begin fixing up their buildings.

“We promote the fact that they’ve done it, to try to get some kind of organic momentum going,” she explained.

They’ve been working on this ordinance for quite a while, Orgill agreed.

“We’ve gone back and forth, and I feel pretty confident where we’re at today,” he said.

There are still some open-ended questions on some of the items, he added, but it will give the city a chance to start working with local organizations (like the Beautification Committee and the Chamber of Commerce) on approaching property owners.

This is also going to coincide with other efforts, Orgill pointed out, like the design and plan to make the Promenade on Forest permanent and the Downtown Action Plan. There are also several hotel renovations in the works, he added. There are other improvements and maintenance items slated to happen around the Downtown, he said.

“The tie-in is perfect timing,” Orgill said. “Now if we can approach some of these property owners and see what we can do to encourage them to raise the bar. I just think that we’re really poised to see some significant change in town and I’m looking forward to it.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council agreed to move forward with a commercial district beautification and property maintenance program

The goal of the program is to promote and incentivize commercial property maintenance throughout the city, said Senior Administrative Analyst Louie Lacasella. Staff has already identified approximately 25 to 30 properties located in Downtown and along Coast Highway that will be addressed first.

The ordinance would amend city code to further define conditions of a property that constitute a nuisance to ensure that commercial properties are maintained in good condition, promoting a safe, clean and attractive community and also make such conditions and violations subject to administrative citations to provide the city with additional enforcement tools. Lacasella explained that the proposed program would provide resources to support commercial property owners and tenants in understanding and fulfilling their maintenance responsibilities and may provide incentives, depending on the direction of council.

Many buildings in the city’s commercial districts require maintenance and care, and some are more than 50 years old, Lacasella said. Common maintenance issues include deteriorated paint, windows, landscaping, awnings and signage.

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Currently, city code identifies certain structures as nuisances depending on specific conditions, including decay, peeling, warping, overgrown vegetation, dead trees, accumulation of trash (bottles, cans, boxes, etc.) and deteriorated parking lots.

The proposed ordinance includes new provisions to ensure:

–Roofs, windows, and doors are free from deteriorated paint, stain, varnish and weatherproofing.

–Areas visible from the street are not used for storage of personal or moveable property.

–Walkways, sidewalks, delivery areas, and other paved surfaces are free from potholes and cracks or inadequate, noncompliant, or broken security lighting.

–Advertising signs, advertising materials, such as banners and posters, and awnings are free from tears, cracks, warp, and excessive fade, dirt, and dust, and do not obstruct visibility.

–Ensure any violation of the city code is deemed a nuisance.

The city will conduct an education campaign to inform businesses about the new ordinance and program before implementing code enforcement.

The program also proposes the city provide support and incentives, including a recognition and award program and financial incentives. The awards could be recognized during the annual state of the city address (as suggested by the Chamber of Commerce), Lacasella said.

“This award program would hopefully inspire and promote other commercial properties to ensure their properties are well maintained as well,” he said.

Staff suggested several options for a financial incentive program, including reimbursement of community development fees (up to either $1,000 or $10,000 per property or another amount as determined by council).

A majority of the council ultimately agreed with the reimbursement plan. If the property owner gets the work done in a certain timeframe, the fees can be reimbursed. That will ensure the work gets done, staff explained.

Kempf suggested offering the incentive program for a year and if it doesn’t get any traction, it can be rolled back.

“We’ve got to try something,” she said.

Weiss questioned if giving the property owner an incentive, essentially “giving them money” from the city, “to do what’s right in the first place” is the appropriate approach.

It’s not the only option, Orgill answered. Notification and outreach will be first, he added, and after that the city could waive some of the fees for a certain period of time in order to incentivize property owners to jump in and take advantage of the program.

Weiss agreed with the idea of an amnesty-like program. But not “handing out” money to businesses, he added, unless they’re in need or there’s significant reason for an exception.

“I don’t want to give away money,” Weiss said.

This will basically give away $300,000 (based reimbursing the max of $10,000 per property in fees for all initial 30 properties), he commented.

They’ve previously discussed about fully capturing all of the community development fees and costs, but now they’re going to “give them away” because the city isn’t enforcing the rules or the rules aren’t adequate or the fees are too high, Weiss said.

The process and fees are the root cause, he noted.

“This sends a bad message to those who do maintain their property,” Weiss said, it shows that the “deadbeats get a break.”

Kempf clarified that the city isn’t just handing the funds over to the property owners that haven’t done any work.

“We’re not giving away money,” she said. “It’s not a give-away, it’s just an incentive to get them going.”

Lacasella also explained that a property racking up to $10,000 or more in fees would be very unlikely. It would have to be many major improvements, essentially a total remodel, he noted. Most will be around the $1,000 mark, he added, the staff report included the higher amount so council could have options.

Weiss also questioned the overall cost of the fees, how the code has been enforced, the number of buildings found by the ad hoc committee and the reason why those properties haven’t previously complied.

“I’m trying to figure out what problem we’re solving here with this and how big the problem actually is,” Weiss said.

There are 25 to 30 properties they want to address immediately, as noted in the staff report, Kempf answered.

There are likely a number of reasons why the maintenance and upkeep hasn’t been done by those property owners, Orgill added. Sometimes people just need reminding, he said.

Some of it is “Out of sight, out of mind,” Orgill commented.

A lot of the buildings have been passed down through the generations and they’re not necessarily “actively managed,” he explained. If it’s an out-of-town building owner and, after some time goes by and they haven’t viewed their property, the maintenance can fall on the tenant, who might not be motivated to upkeep the building as well as they should, Orgill said.

This can bring it to their attention, Orgill said.

Weiss questioned if an incentive to give property owners $2,000, for example, for paint would help because the paint and work would cost more than that, he said.

“People ought to maintain their buildings because they have a vested interest in them,” Weiss said. “If they haven’t done it already, why should they do it now to save that little amount of money.”

The process and fees are the root cause, Weiss commented.

“This sends a bad message to those who do maintain their property,” Weiss said, it shows that the “deadbeats get a break.”

Much of the discussion on Tuesday revolved around streamlining the lengthy and costly process that property owners go through when they want to do some of the mentioned maintenance and improvements.

“When we step back, over-regulation is the problem of why we’ve gotten into this mess,” said Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi.

It shouldn’t take several months and thousands of dollars to change a paint color, Rounaghi commented, sharing an example from a local business owner. That’s the crux of the problem they’re ultimately trying to solve, he added. The bureaucracy of the process causes people to be reluctant to make these improvements in the first place, he said, nobody wants it to take that long or cost that much to do maintenance.

“Time is the most valuable asset that people have,” Rounaghi said.

Rounaghi suggested surveying the properties they plan on targeting first to understand how they got to this point. They should ask the businesses what the barriers are as to why they’re not doing these improvements on their own, he said.

“That could influence us as we look at changing our code,” he said.

Orgill pointed out that code changes and/or streamlining processes, like making certain projects approvable over-the-counter, will take time and will need to be vetted through the Planning Commission.

There were only a few public comments, most supported the overall idea of the program.

CEO of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce Erin Slattery echoed the councilmember comments about the importance of streamlining the permitting process and educating businesses on the process.

She also supported the “charm challenges” and celebrating the businesses with a recognition program.

Resident John Thomas raised a concern about the financial incentive plan, which he said would be like rewarding the property owners for doing the basic maintenance and clean-up they should already be doing with taxpayer dollars.

“It’s mind boggling when these businesses and building owners do not maintain their properties well. They’re shooting themselves in their own feet and they’re shooting themselves in their tenant’s feet,” he said.

There needs to be a better way to encourage better upkeep and discourage deferred maintenance, he added.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.


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