The Santa Clarita Valley and the Las Virgenes region, two of the fastest-growing areas in Los Angeles County, have few community parks because the county does not aggressively enforce an ordinance requiring developers to provide for parks when building housing projects.
In the Santa Clarita Valley, the county has added just 14 acres of parkland in 14 years, during which time the population has doubled to 120,000. In the Las Virgenes area, Calabasas residents are still waiting for their first neighborhood county park.
The county could be receiving millions of dollars more each year to buy and develop parkland if it would take advantage of a 1974 ordinance designed to prevent a park shortage.
Land Rarely Given
Under the ordinance, Los Angeles County can require developers to provide land or an equivalent amount in cash to create parks for residents of new housing tracts. In practice, the county rarely asks developers to give land, opting for money instead. Those payments, however, are artificially low.
In Bouquet Canyon, for instance, if the county determines that a builder should provide an acre of parkland in exchange for building his subdivision, he is allowed instead to pay a fee of $11,682. An acre of unimproved land in the area, however, is worth $169,806, according to the county assessor.
County officials say that raising the fee schedule is a cumbersome process and has not been a priority in recent years. They also say that the county is reluctant to acquire more parks because it wouldn't have the money to maintain them.
Critics charge that the county has kept the fees low to keep the building industry happy.
"There is so little parkland considering the amount of development that has occurred here," said Jan Heidt, a Santa Clarita city councilwoman. "When you have the lobbying power, like the building industry has, it's not surprising."
On the other side, developers warn that forcing them to pour more money into the park system won't hurt them but will hurt the little guy. Extra fees will be passed onto the homeowner, who is already paying for sewers, schools, fire protection and streets in the purchase of a house. About 20% of the cost of a new home in some unincorporated parts of the county is traced to fees passed on to buyers, developers say.
"I think more people need affordable housing in the state and the Santa Clarita Valley than need a park," argued Richard Wirth, a representative of the Building Industry Assn.
Parents in Canyon Country, one of the Santa Clarita Valley areas exploding with new houses, apartments and condominiums, don't need statistics to understand the problem.
McDonald's a Surrogate Park
There are no parks in Canyon Country, and the tiny playground at McDonald's restaurant has become a popular surrogate park for preschoolers.
"I don't like junk food, but I'll put up with it to give her a place to play," Lynn Polke said as she watched her daughter, Jessica, climb aboard a hamburger merry-go-round.
The county's authority to tax developers derives from a 1965 state law nicknamed the Quimby Act. At the urging of then-Assemblyman John Quimby, it was approved by legislators who were worried that the state's housing boom was swallowing up alarming amounts of irreplaceable open space.
Supporters of the act, which was considered revolutionary at the time, envisioned it as a way local governments throughout California could obtain parkland without spending a dime.
After a lengthy court challenge by developers failed, Los Angeles in 1970 became one of the first municipalities in the state to aggressively begin using the act. Los Angeles County began its Quimby program by adopting an ordinance four years later.
Under the ordinance, the county has authority to require a builder to donate three acres of parkland for every 1,000 people expected to move into a development. If a developer is allowed to give cash in lieu of land, the payment is to be based on the value of an acre of land in the area of the development, the ordinance says.
Fees Fell Behind
Over the years, however, the fees fell behind land values.
In 1982, the last time they were increased, the fees were based in part on 1975 land values provided by the county assessor, making them obsolete the moment they were adopted. They were out of date because Proposition 13 froze land values on county assessment rolls at 1975 levels for all unsold properties. The county did not take the extra step to determine what the true market value was.
In the mid-1980s, updating the fees became a low priority, said Ronald Gagnon, a county park planner.
Los Angeles County's parks department told the board in late 1986 that the fees were too low. But the Board of Supervisors postponed the matter for more than a year while different fee formulas were presented. During that period, Supervisor Mike Antonovich's staff and county officials met with developers to ask them what fee increases would be equitable.