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In some ways, residential streets in Pacific Highlands Ranch resemble those in an old urban center. Front doors open not onto lush lawns but onto porches and stoops abutting the sidewalk. Many homes lack driveways, and alleys run between them.
The community east of Carmel Valley is new, not old, but the city’s push for “smarter growth” there has meant residents have forgone the spacious plots and ample yards of yesterday’s suburbs for the tighter, more land-efficient pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhoods of tomorrow.
They moved into the unfinished, developing community expecting that as it grew, public facilities like schools, parks and libraries would follow. With reason: it says so in the community plan.
Plans for a 5-acre neighborhood park, which residents say is overdue and sorely needed because of the community’s density, have languished.
They say the city has reneged on its obligations to provide basic services as a tradeoff for higher density.
“The city pushed for smart growth in this new community,” said Manjeet Ranu, a Pacific Highlands Ranch resident and vice chairman of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Group. “If that’s a policy decision, they need to support it by providing the facilities and amenities to make this kind of development livable.”
The city has struggled to negotiate the purchase of park site land from the developer.
Officials have also said though the $5.8 million raised for the park through special assessments are available for construction, stresses on the city’s day-to-day budget could indefinitely push back new capital projects that would add to the city’s operations and maintenance costs.
“Although a fluid situation, this decision may delay the opening of this specific park beyond 2013,” Stephen Lew, the mayor’s director of community outreach, wrote to Pacific Highlands Ranch’s community planning group in July.
The community’s facilities financing plan sets the park’s groundbreaking for this year. It has yet to be designed. On Friday, residents gathered for a concert at Arabella Park, little more than a patch of grass and a garden on the corner of a residential block, and overflowed into the street.
The community’s area and financing plans lay out how Pacific Highlands Ranch will develop, and when. Though not binding, they set schedules that trigger the construction of facilities when the community’s population has reached threshold levels.
The community’s first park, Gonzales Canyon Neighborhood Park, was scheduled for construction when the population reached 3,500 to 5,000 residents. But that upper figure came and went this year, and the weeds pushing through on the proposed lot have encountered no resistance.
Public facilities for new developments like Pacific Highlands Ranch are financed with special assessments on developers. The city collects a facilities benefit assessment for each parcel granted a building permit, and those assessments are reflected in homes’ purchase prices. This year, the FBA for a single family unit parcel is almost $80,000.
Though new developments are required to “pay their own way” for construction of everything from streets and sewers to parks and fire stations, assessment funds cannot be used for ongoing operations. Facilities remain publicly owned and operated. Strapped for cash to maintain them, the city is instead holding off.
The immediate holdup in Pacific Highlands Ranch is the city’s purchase of the land, but whether or not construction will begin soon after remains uncertain.
“We just don’t know what will happen in the next few years as this project moves forward and we continue to have budgetary constraints and a lagging economy,” Park Department director Stacey LoMedico wrote in a July e-mail to the office of City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who represents Pacific Highlands Ranch.
Which is why residents are exasperated.
“There have been adamant requests to have the park built as soon as possible,” Lightner said. “The neighborhood has an incredible number of children under the age of 5. They were promised the park, and they deserve it.”
“We don’t cost the city as much because we are new, and yet are being told even though you pay into the general fund, you won’t get services,” Ranu said.
Facilities in other FBA communities, like Rancho Peñasquitos and Otay Mesa, have met similar delays.
Peter Dennehy, a senior vice president of Sullivan Group Real Estate Advisors, said it’s not unreasonable for the city to put the projects on hold.
“What’s the point in building if you’re not going to run it?” he said. “It’s a story throughout the city, and it has really to do more with the budget and the ability to spend than with the ability to build.”
But as the park has stalled, residents say, their children are growing up, construction costs will rise, and continued home building has contributed density without adding the public facilities needed to support it.
Residents have tossed around other ideas for expediting the park’s construction. They have considered whether they might extend the boundaries of their maintenance assessment district and assess themselves a special tax to fund park operations.
In any event, they’re kicking it into high gear. On Friday, Lightner sent a letter to the mayor saying the land acquisition for the park had been “unacceptably delayed,” and asking that the park be ready for use by next summer.
Ranu said “the last straw” came when he watched the mayor deliver a speech before the San Diego County Taxpayers Association last week, in which he touted his resolve to construct a new City Hall, downtown main library and convention center expansion.
“I found the mayor’s speech so insulting because he’s talking about these great legacy projects,” Ranu said. “He thinks he can do them without touching the general fund, but he can’t build the ones impacting day to day residents. That was it. This is a mayor who has lost touch.”