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Council waits to appraise, possibly sell Ti Amo property only if alternate site for potential South Laguna fire station found

By SARA HALL

A councilmember request turned into a heated discussion this week to consider selling the former Ti Amo restaurant property, recently purchased by the city for public use, including a possible fire station in South Laguna.

Councilmember Toni Iseman requested on Tuesday (June 7) that the council agendize a future item to consider selling the property at 31727 Coast Highway. 

The revenue from the sale could be used for a number of projects needed in South Laguna, she noted.

“Although our budget is rich with money this a very specific amount of money and it would be great to have that on the table to move forward,” Iseman said. 

They have to be forward thinking, she added. 

“We don’t know what fire equipment is going to look like in the future,” Iseman said. “This space is too small for today, so I doubt we’re ever going to see it as a fire station.”

She also pointed out that the city purchased the site without an appraisal and suggested that they conduct one now. 

While there was no official vote or action at the meeting this week, there was general consensus on the dais to obtain an appraisal at the appropriate time in the future when the city might be in the position to sell the property.

“We’ve had a focus on wanting a fire station in South Laguna for a long time. We bought this property, maybe it’s not the ideal property, but it’s the only property we have right now,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said. “To me, it’s premature to consider selling this.”

If they find an alternate site down the road that works better for a fire station, they can consider selling the Ti Amo property at that time, he commented. They should hold off on an appraisal until then, he added. 

“I think we want to have an appraisal that’s ripe and current,” Whalen said. 

It’s too early to sell it or to appraise it, Mayor Sue Kempf agreed. 

“I don’t think we should do an appraisal now. If we’re going to sell it, let’s do it closer to the time when we’re going to sell it,” she said. “We can get an appraisal and it says it’s worth, I don’t know, $3.1 (million), what does that really mean if we’re not going to sell it right now anyway?”

Council waits to appraise Ti Amo

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city recently purchased the property at 31727 Pacific Coast Highway, previously occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone

Last year, in a split 3-2 vote on June 15, council authorized an agreement with Rincon Consultants Inc. in the amount of $89,199 to provide consulting services for the preparation of an initial study for the acquisition of 31727 Coast Highway and for a possible Mitigated Negative Declaration, if determined to be appropriate. Councilmembers Iseman and George Weiss dissented.

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The Planning Commission voted 5-0 on August 4 to approve city staff’s recommended general plan consistency determination for 31727 and 31735 Coast Highway.

Commissioners and staff emphasized that they were only affirming GP consistency for possible future public benefit use, and not a specific use (such as a fire station).

The city entered into escrow to acquire the property, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone. The city offered $2.7 million.

In a split vote on August 24, council took the next step toward acquiring the Ti Amo property in South Laguna for future civic uses, including as a possible replacement for the neighborhood’s local fire station.

At that time, councilmembers again voted 3-2 to certify the initial study/mitigated negative declaration for the acquisition of 31727 and 31735 Coast Highway; and directed staff to complete any steps necessary to close escrow on the subject property. Councilmembers Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

Although many of the comments during each previous discussion revolved around using the property as the future site for the fire station, that was not the issue at hand, then-Mayor Whalen pointed out during the August council meeting.

It was clearly stated that the purpose for the discussion and vote was to consider the IS/MND and if the property is suitable for acquisition for public purpose, “not necessarily a fire station, but possibly a fire station.”

Planning Commission considered making a parking lot out of it and couldn’t figure out the ingress and egress, Iseman pointed out during the discussion this week. 

In her request, Iseman wrote that it’s not an ideal location for a fire station.

“Since the purchase, it’s been widely recognized that the property is not ideal as a site for replacing fire station no. 4,” Iseman wrote. 

Councilmember Peter Blake called the request a “political stunt” and “nonsense.” It’s an effort to make the purchase look like a bad decision by the council and humiliate city staff, he said. They purchased the property for potential future use as a fire station to keep South Laguna safe, he added. 

“That’s a very valuable property and it’s going to keep on going up,” Blake said. 

If the value has gone up since the city purchased it, an appraisal will prove it, Iseman said. 

“An appraisal is appropriate,” she said. 

The city isn’t a real estate investment company, Weiss said, and this site probably isn’t usable for a fire station in the future, particularly considering the new ambulance service. 

“Hopefully it has gone up (in value),” Weiss said. “I don’t know if this property is worth more than what we paid for it, but there’s no reason we can’t get an appraisal to determine that.”

He agreed with the idea of selling it after an alternate site is identified. 

During public comment, resident John Thomas said they should do an appraisal and noted that this property could be used as an asset in a “trade” for a better site for a potential fire station.

“It could be very valuable for you to hang onto while you’re looking for other sites,” he said. 

If another property is found and it can’t be traded, then it would be appropriate to sell it, Thomas added.

The city follows an operational policy to conduct an appraisal every time they purchase a property, said City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. There were special circumstances discussed in closed session about why this particular property wasn’t appraised, she explained.

Answering a question from council about the surplus property policy, Dupuis explained it could take between 90 days and six months to sell the property.

As a public agency, they can’t just put a property on the market and sell it or exchange it, she said. If it was purchased for public use, the property has to go through a public hearing process and determine that it’s no longer needed for public use. That’s when it becomes a surplus property.

According to the state’s Surplus Land Act guidelines, it has to be made available for affordable housing, parks and recreation and school uses. There’s a notification process for the California Department of Housing and Community Development and affordable housing developers, Dupuis explained. They can sell it at market value, she noted. 

That process takes a minimum of 90 days. If somebody does want it for affordable housing, the process could take six months. If they don’t get any takers, they can put the property up for sale, Dupuis explained. 

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

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