An ultra-modern, glass-walled Infiniti dealership stands smack in the middle of a strip the Thousand Oaks City Council has declared "blighted."
So does Thousand Oaks' most attractive downtown shopping plaza, winner of this year's City Beautiful competition. And so does the $64-million Civic Arts Plaza.
A three-member majority of the council is poised to recertify this four-mile stretch of Thousand Oaks Boulevard as blighted--a finding necessary to extend the life of the city's Redevelopment Agency.
Formed 14 years ago to spiff up the city's oldest commercial area, the Redevelopment Agency collects property taxes from land along Thousand Oaks Boulevard and spends the money on various rehabilitation projects, from cosmetic improvements to affordable housing.
In theory, those projects boost property values along the boulevard. The Redevelopment Agency then reaps the increased tax revenue. Although the county continues to receive a base line amount of taxes, set when the agency was formed in 1979, the city collects every dollar by the higher property values.
The Redevelopment Agency passes on 20% of that money to the county, plus 5% each to the school and park districts, but the bulk of the money stays within Thousand Oaks.
As a result, the Redevelopment Agency has thus far diverted $72 million from county coffers. That money could have been spent beefing up the Sheriff's Department, cleaning up parks or preserving library hours elsewhere in the county. Instead, it funded local projects, such as the Hampshire Road landscaping and the spruce-up of Thousand Oaks Boulevard's 2400 block.
Redevelopment backers cite these beautification efforts as proof that the agency works. And they argue that the boulevard face-lift is far from complete. Straggly trees, clashing signs, ugly facades and the odd vacant lot must somehow be taken care of, they say, to position Thousand Oaks' downtown for a prosperous future.
Toward that end, council members Alex Fiore, Judy Lazar and Frank Schillo have expressed support for an amendment--on the council's Tuesday night agenda--that would extend the Redevelopment Agency's life to 2023.
The three would also like to generate quick cash for boulevard improvement projects by issuing $120-million worth of bonds, to be paid off over the next three decades with property tax dollars.
But their plan infuriates county administrators, who resent the city's tenacious grip on its boulevard tax dollars. In a comprehensive fiscal analysis, representatives of the county, the community college district and the fire protection district estimated they would lose millions of dollars if Thousand Oaks siphons away property taxes for the next 30 years.
Fiore, Lazar and Schillo reject these figures. By their reckoning, redevelopment projects boost property values throughout the city, and thus increase the county's net intake from Thousand Oaks taxpayers.
Redevelopment-funded amenities such as Parque de La Paz and the walkway along the Arroyo Conejo flood channel may not be visible from Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the council members say, but they do enhance the city's overall tax base.
So far, county administrators aren't convinced.
"If they can go ahead and do their local projects without hurting us, that's fine--more power to them," County Counsel Daniel Murphy said. "But if they say there's blight and they need our money to cure it, we'll want to look very, very carefully at whether the blight exists."
State law leaves that issue open to interpretation.
Under current codes, "a blighted area is characterized by . . . (buildings) which are unfit or unsafe to occupy . . . and are conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency and crime" because of faulty design, overcrowding, inadequate recreation space or dilapidation.
To declare an area blighted, a city council must find "social and economic maladjustment to such an extent that the capacity to pay taxes is reduced and tax receipts are inadequate" to fix the pervasive problems.
Finally, the council must determine that private investment alone could not be counted on to remedy the blight.
"Redevelopment is intended to be used for areas with high crime, lots of liquor stores, high turnover, high vacancy rates and vacant land," said Los Angeles attorney Murray Kane, who represents 20 redevelopment agencies across the state.
"It's meant for a project area that really is dragging the rest of the city down," Kane said.
By most definitions, the Thousand Oaks redevelopment project area, which stretches from the Los Angeles County line to the Janss Mall, does not drag the city down.
As many as 80 retail stores or offices are vacant, and some undeveloped parcels have become unsightly and unkempt. Nevertheless, the project area generates nearly half of the city's total sales tax revenue.