By Daryl Kelley
Rebuffing its own landlord, the Ojai City Council denied this week an appeal by the Ojai Unified School District that sought to delay approval of the design of a new, permanent skate park until district concerns had been addressed.
“I’m disappointed,” said Linda Taylor, school board president, after the Tuesday evening hearing. “I don’t think it went well.”
The new city-run $350,000 skate park, funded mostly by community donations but with a $100,000 city contribution, would replace a tattered wooden structure near school district headquarters on Ojai Avenue.
The site is owned by the School District and leased to the city for skate park use until 2023. It is a small part of a larger parcel that holds the OUSD headquarters, Chaparral High School and Auditorium and a Park & Ride lot.
The School District had appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the skate park’s design, stating that the district’s lease requires its prior approval of a new facility.
City officials said, however, that the district review could come later, when a final design is complete.
Although denying the district’s appeal, the City Council promised to cooperate with school trustees as the project moves forward, and to do everything it can to avoid a district lawsuit.
But council members said they thought it was time to press toward completion of the park, which a new city time line projects as August of 2010, at the latest.
Council members said they thought they could answer all of the School District’s concerns as the project moves from the current design stage toward final approval this fall. But the city acknowledged that the project must be sanctioned by the School District to move forward.
“It is clear you can’t commence any construction without approval” by the school district, city attorney Monte Widders told the council.
Mayor Joe DeVito said the city wants to work fully with the school board.
“The last thing I want us Ñ two public agencies Ñ is to get involved in a lawsuit,” DeVito said. “We’re all losers if we do, and that would be a sad day.”
On the district’s behalf, Taylor assured the council that the trustees favor skate park construction, but that the park must be built so it is safe and secure and legal under state environmental law. It should be supervised and have rest room and drinking fountain facilities, she said. And it should also blend into any new commercial project the district might approve for its prime eight-acre headquarters parcel.
“We’re really in favor of a skate park,” Taylor said. “We’re not trying to abort or delay the skate park project. We don’t want a lawsuit.”
A suit to halt the park would be “unconscionable,” she said, “especially between two public entities. É What we’ve been asking for is more communication and regular answers to our questions. É We do not seek delay, we seek communication.”
She also noted, however, that the district has lost 20 percent of its budget to declining enrollment and the state financial crisis, so it must consider all options to maintain services for students, including commercial development of its headquarters site.
The district issued a request for proposals to build a commercial project last year, and has received one response, she said in an interview. The school board has not yet reviewed that proposal, she said.
“We’re going to have to develop that property,” she told the council. “We wouldn’t want anything (at the skate park) that would be a distraction.”
The council acknowledged that the city and OUSD have not communicated well.
“I would hope to see a future where we’re collaborating on all these things,” said Councilwoman Carol Smith.
“The communication issue is an issue that needs to be resolved,” Councilwoman Sue Horgan added. And she asked that the preliminary skate park design and other documents be forwarded immediately to the School District.
The council also officially invited two district trustees and its superintendent to meet with council members and the city manager. Such a summit was planned for last week but was canceled when the city would not accept the presence of an assistant superintendent at the meeting and school officials would not meet without the additional official, who is head of facilities planning.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Taylor said she still wanted Dannielle Pusatere, the facilities expert, at the meeting. But she said that was a decision trustees would have to discuss, along with the superintendent. When asked if tape recording the meeting would suffice so Pusatere could review comments, Taylor said that was a possible solution to the stalemate.
Even with efforts to speed up a nearly two-year campaign to build a new skate park, several community members complained about either the school board’s position or the city’s lack of progress in moving forward on the skate park.
Attorney Bill Gilbreth chastised the School District for saying it had not been fully apprised of the design of the skate park, when trustees had been briefed April 14 at a public meeting that included a Power-Point presentation of the site design.
“I think the school board members Ñ and they are wonderful people Ñ are sticking their heads in the sand,” Gilbreth said.
He said the district is hesitant about the new park because it wants to become “the largest commercial landlord in town” with its headquarters development. “That’s what’s really going on here,” Gilbreth said.
And, if trustees were to block the skate park with a lawsuit, Gilbreth said, “É there would be a petition to recall the school board within a week.”
In response, Taylor said the city’s April presentation to the school board addressed only a conceptual design, not a detailed one.
Summarizing the school board’s appeal for the council, city manager Jere Kersnar said in a report that the district’s concerns were mostly operational and maintenance issues, and not related to the design of the project, which is what the Planning Commission approved. Thus, he said, the council should deny the appeal.
And Kersnar said that it appears that changes could be made later to address the district’s concerns.
For example, he said that a rest room and drinking fountain might be offered in the first phase of the project, not the second, in response to city concerns.
School officials, however, listed a variety of concerns, including the legal conclusion that the skate park must undergo review under state environmental laws before it can be built. The city has concluded that no such review is needed, because the park fits under exceptions to such laws.
“They didn’t address the CEQUA (environmental law) issue,” Taylor said later. “And that’s not good.”
The School District is responsible for construction on its property and it must follow the law, she said. OUSD’s lawyer has concluded that environmental laws must be followed, she said.
Concerning the 12 months still needed to finish the project, Kersnar and Dale Sumersille, Recreation Department director, said that they attempted to make the time line realistic, so it could be met this time. Sumersille said the 40 steps listed on the time line are sequential and couldn’t be pushed much farther, because each step depends on completion of the previous one.
But some council members said they wanted the project to move more quickly.