The Irvine Co.'s decision last week to bypass the City of Irvine and pay developer fees directly into a controversial freeway construction fund has left the city's freeway critics scurrying for a new strategy.
According to Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, the company's action circumvents a planned citywide election on the issue of the city's participation in the freeway-financing program. Most political observers agree that such an election could halt continued city collection of the developer fees because of residents' anti-freeway sentiment.
Asked about the city's possible retaliation, Agran, who is part of a "slow growth" council majority, said: "If they (freeway proponents) try to ram something down our throats, then we'll shut down all development in the city. . . . It will get very unpleasant."
However, Councilman Ray Catalano, another member of the slow-growth majority, predicted that "cooler heads" will prevail and that the entire freeway matter will never reach the point requiring a building freeze.
The company's move undercuts freeway opponents because the Irvine Co. is expected to provide 90% of the city's $120-million share of developer fees that are to go to two joint powers authorities overseeing the San Joaquin Hills, Eastern and Foothill freeway projects.
City Could Lose Clout
Without the ability to withhold the Irvine Co.'s contributions, the city would lose much of its political clout on freeway matters, according to county officials. Moreover, the company may be able to convince other developers to adopt the same strategy.
Irvine Co. officials denied that they are trying to circumvent the will of Irvine voters.
"The thinking behind the company's decision is that we see them (developer fees) as a fair-share contribution towards regional transportation improvements," and the company has development projects in other cities besides Irvine, said Irvine Co. transportation director Hugh Fitzpatrick.
Despite the company's action, Agran is skeptical that the freeway plans will move forward.
He said, for example, that even with the Irvine Co.'s money, the developer-fee program is far from raising anywhere near the $1 billion to $2 billion needed to build the three proposed corridors. Agran also pointed out that Irvine has not revoked the ordinance that requires the Irvine Co. to pay developer fees, adding that the firm is not about to pay the fees twice.
However, Agran and other freeway critics are concerned enough that they are using unusually harsh language in describing possible retaliation.
"We're going to pull the plug on all development in the city, if necessary," said Bill Speros, chairman of the Committee of Seven Thousand, a citizens' group critical of plans for the three new freeways.
"I'm sympathetic with that," Agran said.
Agran and Speros said that shutting down development in Irvine would involve persuading the City Council or voters to adopt a freeze on building permits. But Dave Baker, a council member and former mayor, said he fears that Agran is leading the city into a no-win game of saber-rattling.
One of the greatest fears of the freeway critics is that the joint powers authorities planning the three freeways will use the Irvine Co.'s decision to bypass the City of Irvine in developing freeway designs and routes that stand no chance of acceptance by Irvine residents.
Asked what the company would do if the joint powers authorities develop freeway plans that are unacceptable to Irvine and the city stops issuing building permits, the Irvine Co.'s Fitzpatrick replied:
"The question itself assumes a conflict that we are working hard to avoid. If we fail, we fail, and I don't know what will happen at that point."
"This is getting to be somewhat predictable," added John Erskine, executive director of the Building Industry Assn. of Orange County. "If you (Irvine officials) say that you're not going to play the game unless you get your way and go home, we say the game goes on anyway. And then they blow up the end zone."
The developer-fee program is administered by two joint powers authorities whose members include representatives of nine cities, the county and the business community. Each of the cities is responsible for collecting the developer fees in its area.
Earlier this month, the joint powers authorities barred Irvine from membership after the new, slow-growth majority on the Irvine council voted not to participate in the freeway-financing program unless city voters approve it in an upcoming election.
Other preconditions approved by the City Council included reductions in planned freeway size, changes in some routes and restrictions on future growth.
Meanwhile, the news that the Irvine Co. had decided to pay money directly into the freeway fund if Irvine stops collecting the money was welcomed by Stan Oftelie, executive director of both the Orange County Transportation Commission and the joint powers authorities.