LIVE OAK -- In an effort to save long-planned park and beachfront improvements from being nixed by the state, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors this month decided on a leap of faith.
On Dec. 11, county supervisors voted to write a $7 million check to an obscure local oversight board, ending an ongoing dispute with state officials that could have spilled into a courtroom. The board hopes to eventually see the money pay for $1.4 million riverfront park in Soquel and $4.5 million in roadside improvements at Twin Lakes State Beach, one of the most popular summer destinations in the county.
"Our interest was to keep these projects moving," board chair John Leopold said. "They're making us jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops to spend money on a project that we would have anyway."
The $7 million maneuver is a continuation of an issue that erupted 18 months ago, when the state legislature signaled the end of more than 400 redevelopment agencies statewide.
A case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court helped set in motion an often-confusing process where newly formed local oversight boards made sure the former agencies' debts were paid, but also helped local schools, fire districts and other agencies squeeze as many tax dollars out of redevelopment as possible.
Legislation passed this year helped clarify some of the confusion. But the bill also retroactively set a cut-off date for redevelopment projects of June 27, 2011, which came during a busy week in the history of local redevelopment agencies.
Leading up to that date, the county had spent several months striking development deals on a host of community projects, an effort to spend remaining redevelopment dollars before they disappeared.
But three projects -- Twin Lakes, the Heart of Soquel riverfront park and now-completed sidewalk improvements near Soquel High School -- weren't quite shovel-ready, and the county turned to the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. The plan was for the nonprofit to manage the projects, and to get the deal in place before Gov. Jerry Brown signed any bill ending redevelopment.
But the Community Foundation backed out at the last minute, citing the uncertainty surrounding the deal. Like a spurned suitor, the county pivoted to Sacramento-based Vanir Construction Management, which was working on the unrelated Santa Cruz Veteran's Memorial Building retrofit.
"We knew we were racing the clock at the time," Leopold said.
The Vanir deal was announced and given preliminary approval on June 26, 2011. But final approval did not come until two days later, after the state's backdated cut-off date.
Leopold said auditors in the state Department of Finance recently raised objections to the deal, even though nearly $1 million in sidewalk improvements near Soquel High School are now completed. The Dec. 11 vote essentially returns redevelopment funds to the oversight board, with the county agreeing to front money for continued planning and permit approval on the two remaining projects until they are officially back on.
Leopold, who is a member of the oversight board as well, said the issue was recently discussed at that board's meeting and he is confident it would be approved. He said the Board took the best course of action, though he disagrees with the state's objections.
"We think if we took it to court we could win that case," he said.
If the oversight board reinstates the projects, construction on the Heart of Soquel project could begin in the summer. The Twin Lakes bike, pedestrian, parking and beach access improvement project must first be approved by the state Coastal Commission, and there is no timetable for its completion.
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