10:38 PM PST on Sunday, March 6, 2011
By JIM MILLER and DUANE W. GANG
SACRAMENTO – Redevelopment in Riverside and San Bernardino counties historically has been as much about the “development” part of the process as the “re,” agency records show.
As California lawmakers and local officials battle over the program’s future, there are large differences in redevelopment’s beginnings in Inland Southern California compared to the rest of the state.
Outside the two-county region, more than three-quarters of the land covered by the anti-blight program was built out before redevelopment started. The money went to projects to overhaul skid rows or to spruce up aging downtowns.
In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, however, less than half of the region’s more than 800 square miles of redevelopment land had been developed already. A larger share was classified as vacant.
Redevelopment revenue has paid for flood-control and other public-works projects in those areas, officials said.
Statewide, the issue of vacant-vs.-developed land in redevelopment areas has spawned court fights and changes in law to restrict the practice. A 1998 report by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that some agencies “appear to be engaged in development, not redevelopment.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed phasing out redevelopment to help close a $25 billion-plus budget gap. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, $1.7 billion in redevelopment money would help pay for Medi-Cal and the courts. Redevelopment money would go to pay for schools and local services in later years.
But redevelopment’s backers say the program has generated thousands of jobs and helped spur the region’s growth.
When Fontana created the Jurupa Hills redevelopment zone in 1981, the 2,500-acre redevelopment area was 100 percent vacant.
Thirty years later, more than 7,000 houses and businesses occupy the area, city officials said. Redevelopment paid for the public works — such as roads, sewers and flood-control channels — that paved the way for growth, Deputy City Manager Debbie Brazill said.
“It has literally transformed the city of Fontana,” Brazill said of redevelopment.
One of Hemet’s three redevelopment zones was 80 percent vacant when created in 1982.
“One of the major projects was flood control with the construction of the Salt Creek Channel to alleviate inundation of those areas,” said John Jansons, the city’s redevelopment and economic development manager.
In Fontana’s North Fontana Project Area, the 9,000 acres was 90 percent vacant when the city created it in 1975.
No private development took place until the city put in a flood-control project there, the city officials said.
Don Williams, Fontana’s community development director, said a private developer would not take decades to save enough money to fund a $20 million flood control project. “It would bankrupt them,” Williams said.
Rancho Cucamonga’s single redevelopment zone totals 8,500 acres and was 85 percent vacant when the city created it in 1981.
“The rules were different back then. The blight was inadequate flood-control improvements,” said Linda Daniels, a deputy city manager who joined Rancho Cucamonga in 1983.
“It (the redevelopment area) was not developing because of the expensive flood-control and infrastructure needed,” she said. “The agency was formed to help fund those improvements.”
Created 60 years ago, redevelopment works by freezing, for tax purposes, the assessed values of properties in redevelopment areas. The agencies then receive the future growth in property taxes, which is known as the tax increment, instead of the general fund.
In the Inland area, 53 redevelopment agencies received about 30 percent of all property-tax revenue, compared with a statewide average of 12 percent.
Part of the reason for the disparity is that large parts of Inland redevelopment zones were mostly empty when they were created.
“There is much more to gain in terms of tax increment,” said Mark Whitaker of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, said state law once allowed officials to redevelop vacant land to address “economic blight.”
“Cities and counties follow the rules at the time. What’s fair is fair,” Shirey said. “As time went by, there was a general feeling it should be changed.”
In 1983, lawmakers tightened the definition of redevelopment to prevent “bare land projects.” Eighty percent of new redevelopment areas have to already be developed for urban uses.
Some land classified as “vacant” in filings with the state controller’s office might actually comply with the law. “Non-urban” land could include former military bases, for example.
In 1996, lawmakers further limited redevelopment’s footprint by prohibiting agricultural and open-space lands covered by Williamson Act contracts. Those contracts require the land to be kept undeveloped in return for lower property taxes.
The vacant-land issue has sparked several lawsuits in the Inland region.
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