VP council members lambast secret annexation inquiry

By Tina Richards

A Villa Park city councilman’s behind-the-scenes attempts to solve a problem that didn’t exist was met with shock and anger from two of his colleagues when his activities came to light near the close of the May 23 council meeting.

While reviewing the city manager’s report of current projects, Councilwoman Diana Fascenelli noted that one item, “researching the potential annexation of OC Water District parcels,” had been directed by Councilman Bob Collacott -- without the knowledge of anyone else -- and she demanded an explanation.

Collacott said that he had asked City Manager Steve Franks to research the possibility of annexing county property abutting Villa Park to meet state mandates for low-income housing zoning. The property in question is an off-limits peninsula that juts out into the Bond pits groundwater recharge basin owned by Orange County Water District (OCWD).  Collacott pointed out that since it was owned by OCWD, it would never be built on, but if annexed, the city could zone it as multi-family, mixed-use and therefore satisfy the state’s requirement that every city include opportunities for affordable housing in its land-use plan.  He further reported that OCWD was open to the idea.

Fast and furious
It was not clear whether it was the surprise mention of annexation, rezoning for low-income housing, or Collacott’s admission that he was researching a topic of citywide consequence without the council’s knowledge, but Fascenelli and Councilman Robbie Pitts’ reactions were explosive.  “We’ve already met the state mandate,” Fascenelli snapped.  “It’s not a problem.”

“You want to put low-income housing where?” Robbie Pitts thundered in disbelief.  “That’s where my house is, you want to put low-income zoning behind my house without letting me and my neighbors know about it?”

“You have to tell the residents about this,” Fascenelli insisted.  “You need to notify people.”

Collacott stressed that he was simply doing research, and that once he had information, he’d let people know.

“It looks like you’re hiding this from residents,” Fascenelli said.

The volcanic exchange continued for several minutes, with Fascenelli repeating that Villa Park did not need land for low-income housing, Pitts challenging Collacott’s zoning presumption, and Collacott defending his actions with explanations all beginning with the words “we thought.”

“Who’s we?” Pitts demanded.

“Well, me,” Collacott said.

Solution in search of a problem
Collacott’s freelancing is, however, rooted in recent events. Villa Park has struggled with state demands for multi-family, mixed-use zoning for years. Largely built-out with single-family homes and one central commercial area, there is little available space to rezone.  The state rejected the city’s first attempts to identify property that could be rezoned because those parcels, the state found, could not feasibly be developed.  The city ultimately came up with a plan that rezoned city hall, the library and the office building next door as multi-family, mixed use.  The state accepted that plan and certified Villa Park’s housing element last December.  Because the certification came 14 months after the due date, Villa Park has been notified that it must file again by October 15. 

The city council had, in fact, agreed to hire a consultant to do that work earlier in that same meeting.  Ironically, during that housing discussion, Pitts reported receiving phone calls from residents who had “heard rumors” that the city was going to acquire unused land from the Serrano Water District for low-cost housing.  “I didn’t know what to tell them,” he said, “because I hadn’t heard anything about it.”

And neither, apparently, had anyone else. There was no further mention of Serrano property, and it was reiterated that the city did not need additional affordable housing zoning because it had already met the state mandate.

Dead on arrival?
OCWD Board President Denis Bilodeau did have a discussion with Franks about the potential annexation of the Bond pits property.  “We had a casual conversation about it,” he said.  “I told him the district would not be opposed to the idea, but cautioned him about the pitfalls.”

The pitfalls are primarily cost.  The land generates no income from property taxes, and has no infrastructure.  Annexations must be approved by LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission, and that process could cost tens of thousands of dollars.  

Bilodeau was unaware of the city’s intent to rezone it for housing.  “We couldn’t support that,” he said.  “That land serves as mitigation for environmental damage caused by the former sand and gravel operation that was there.  It’s now home to numerous wildlife and nesting birds, and the water district wants to keep it that way.  We would not support rezoning it.”

And it’s likely that the state wouldn’t accept the rezoning anyway.  “It has to be buildable,” Fascenelli explained later.  “We just spent years going back and forth with the state.  Now that we are finally in compliance, why would we change that?"