Citizens object: Council votes to negotiate sale of former wastewater treament plant property

September 07, 2012
Santa Paula City Council

The City Council agreed at the September 3 meeting to move forward with negotiations to sell a 10-acre parcel, the former site of the wastewater treatment plant where a slice of property is the longtime home of the FAA Animal Farm.

Several members of the public told the council they had concerns about the potential deal before the council voted 4-0 to proceed. Councilman Ralph Fernandez was unable to attend the meeting. 

City Manager Jaime Fontes urged the council to enter negotiations with Crown, saying the benefits - ranging from job creation to the city avoiding $1 million-plus for demolition and other costs - would benefit the city. Crown, which is offering $2.04 million, would undertake such a cleanup if it buys the property, although Fontes noted probably at a lower cost.

Crown, he noted, would continue to use the property in a manner similar to how the city had used it since 1939, when the now closed sewer plant was put into operation. The property, he added, has not gone through the “traditional bid process,” as it should not be considered “a traditional sale ready property.” 

Fontes said Crown stated they would not be interested in leasing the property “to bring it that level of operation” with up to 60 employees without ownership. Crown currently uses some of the property for its operations, including office buildings and an area for the repair and storage of garbage trucks.

The proposal said Fontes, has “unique circumstances of the buyer and the seller seeming to match up.” Several speakers disagreed.

“I would ask that you pause for a moment and not move so quickly on negotiations,” said Martin Hernandez, of Santa Paula, a candidate for the City Council in November. Hernandez noted the city owns a limited number of assets; and possibly EPA grant money could be obtained by the city for environmental cleanup of the property, located on the west end of the city. 

Hernandez also noted that the city, which uses part of the property as Corporation Yard to store, service and repair city-owned vehicles, would lease back part of the property. “I don’t understand the strategy on this,” and Hernandez said the council should be emphasizing more utility costs “instead of having garage sales” of city assets.

Former Councilwoman and Mayor Mary Ann Krause also urged the city to consider alternatives and carefully examine any deal that does not fit with past visioning for the industrial area. The parcel itself, she added, is a attractive rarity due to its size, and, “Never sell an asset without a vision for your community.” 

Krause also objected that both property appraisals were addressed to and paid for by Crown. And both studies, she added, recommended that the property be held onto until values return.

Marsha Rae also questioned costs of potential environmental cleanup. 

Several speakers, including two that made their comments earlier in the meeting, noted their concerns with the fate of the FFA Animal Farm, which City Manager Jaime Fontes addressed earlier, noting the farm would be displaced eventually for road alterations related to another site.

Councilman Rick Cook said the SPHS District “has not done anything” about finding an alternative FAA site for decades. The council “just went through the process of everybody paying their way,” including youth sports often participated in by children from low-income households. “Some of these kids involved can’t even buy sport shoes,” and the FFA already costs its participants much more money.

Cook said the absent Fernandez - whose concerns were repeated by Fontes at the beginning of the discussion - has a “bias” because his children participate in FFA. “I look at the cost of this,” Cook added, “as risk versus gain... we don’t want to sell our assets, but this isn’t an asset, it’s a hindrance.”

Councilman Fred Robinson asked if the staff report’s reference to the property being made available to other potential buyers was correct. Fontes said no, but that the industrial parcel had been offered to the Santa Paula Housing Authority and schools, offers that had been declined.

“It’s important to be open and transparent in any decisions or discussions relative to future uses of the property,” said Robinson.

Fontes said when it came to the property appraisals, “It’s smart to get the potential buyer to pay for both as long you suggest one,” which ensures the “independence” of the finished work.

Several suggestions by council members centered on relocating the FFA in a facilities use swap with the high school, as well as alternatives to the city leasing back a portion of the property.

Councilman Jim Tovias asked Crown General Manager Tim Fry where the company’s “other digester” is located, and then Mayor Bob Gonzales suggested a site visit, “a committee of two to go to the location where Crown has his businesses, look at his sites.” Fry noted he has been in discussions with the FFA, which already has a six-month agreement from Crown, and is offering alternatives. 

Gonzales asked if there were any volunteers to inspect the Crown facility in San Carlos, and Tovias and Cook said they would make the site visit.

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