Merced County Times Newspaper
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City planning tested by new housing trends, need for facilities

Merced city leaders are facing some important decisions regarding zoning and permitting of accessory dwelling units, garage conversions, and parking requirements in residential areas, as well as a couple possible 2020 ballot measures to fund costly public safety efforts, and reforms to the City Charter.

The ongoing issues were discussed at the most recent meeting of the Merced City Council on July 1, and a few consequential votes are expected in early August.

The California Legislature, through its actions, is urging cities to embrace “accessory dwelling units” or ADUs in single-family and multi-family residential zones as an “essential component” for addressing housing needs in cities across the state. A variety of bills in both the Senate and Assembly have been passed to reduce barriers and streamline approvals to allow ADUs.

This is pertinent to Merced when considering apartment vacancy rates are said to be below 1 percent and rental rates are as high as $820 a month for a one bedroom flat.

Last November, the City Council directed staff to prepare changes to the city’s existing ordinance in order to have plans in place to make ADUs easier for property owners to develop, as well as policy options involving parking and owner occupancy requirements.

Parking options
The maximum size of an attached ADU is set to increase from 1,000 square feet to 1,200 square feet, but the extra unit cannot exceed the allowable density for the lot. It must be clearly subordinate to the primary dwelling, and have features for a completely separate living space. It could be considered a “granny unit” in a backyard setting, or may be attached to, or located within, an attached garage or storage area.

ADUs require only one parking place, and the state is targeting “setback” areas, such as an established driveway already on the lot as a designated parking alternative. Many cities are now allowing for that exemption.

However, an existing Merced ordinance does not include the driveway as an area that counts for legal required parking space for a home. Usually, in a single family home, the parking “designation” is located inside the garage (despite the fact that it’s still OK to park a vehicle in the driveway or on the street where space is available.)

Another sticking point for the City Council: The current Merced provision has made it difficult to legally transform an entire garage into extended living space for an existing home because the designated parking space in the garage area (usually big enough for two vehicles) would be removed, and the driveway wouldn’t count. On the other hand, if leaders decide to allow designated parking in the driveway, by way of an amended city ordinance, there’s a theory that the action may lead to many more garage conversions in a variety of configurations that would affect the overall look of neighborhoods and increase the amount of vehicles parked on the street, among other concerns.

Recently, a majority of the city’s Planning Commission voted to allow parking in the setback areas. Members expressed the strategy could help the city’s housing stock and affordable living space.

The city’s Planning Manager Kim Espinosa — who has been presenting the proposed Zoning Ordinance Amendment — said her department currently deals with way more garage conversion requests than ones to build specific ADUs.

Mayor Mike Murphy has weighed in on the matter by saying, “I’m more in favor of ADUs than garage conversions … When you have a lot of garage conversions, that can change the character of a neighborhood. … I’m not looking to encourage a bunch of garage conversions, especially the forward facing garages.”

Council member Anthony Martinez somewhat disagreed, saying homeowners should have a certain amount of rights to create living space however they want on their own property. He also pointed out that many garage conversions are done illegally, anyway.

“You are not going to stop it,” Martinez said matter-of-factly. “It’s happening. Something is going to have to give, and you are not going to make everybody happy.”

Owner occupancy
Council members also debated the rules surrounding “owner occupancy” with regard to R-1 and R-2 residences, and ADUs.

However, it should be noted that currently the State Legislature is considering SB13, a law that would prohibit a local agency from requiring owner occupancy in either the primary or the accessory dwelling unit of a residential property. If approved, residential properties with ADUs could be owned by offsite, or out-of-town landlords, and the recent discussion in Merced would be a mute point.

Nevertheless, right now in Merced, the owner of a parcel with a second unit must reside in the primary or secondary living space. We are not alone. A recent survey of 35 California cities found that 28 still require owner occupancy, while seven cities and one county do not.

Critics of removing the requirement say there are negative impacts on single family neighborhoods when no landlords are onsite, including reduced upkeep of homes, neglected landscaping, and disputes between tenants over utility bills and maintenance. Supporters of getting rid of the rule says it discourages the creation of ADUs and makes it harder to secure home loans to build them, and limits the value appraisers can assign to a house.
After an extensive discussion, the Merced Planning Commission voted 4-1 (with 2 members absent) to remove the owner occupancy requirement. A majority of the panel reportedly expressed the idea that the state was going to pass the new law anyway.

At the July 1 council meeting, two residents spoke up during the ADU discussion.

“Downtown will be a likely spot for ADUs because our lots our bigger than the newer lots,” said Gloria Conlin. “It will affect our properties. I encourage affordable housing, but living next to properties that are not owner occupied has been a nightmare.”

Conlin said she worried that a lot of work that has been done to shore up the condition of historic downtown neighborhoods over the past decade could be derailed by new state laws.

Christopher Kempton, who lives in a newer section of southeast Merced, stated he would be against changing the owner occupancy law. “It could be a business for people,” he said. “If it’s a business, I don’t think you should make it easier for people to come in and disenfranchise the rest of the owners who live in the neighborhood.”

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy pushed for the city staff to look at an option so that a possible change in the ordinance could reflect a difference between the zones R-1 (single family residential) and R-2 (single-family, duplex, multi-family dwellings) with regard to owner occupancy and ADUs.

Councilman Fernando Echevarria said he wished the law could apply separately by districts, but acknowledged that wasn’t going to happen.

“I’m looking at District 2 (south Merced),” he said. “We have large enough lots with alley access. I’m in favor of this without owner occupancy requirements. People don’t need babysitters. They know right from wrong. … We need housing, and I think we need to look at all options.”

The discussion was continued to the Aug. 5 council meeting.

Survey says …
City Manager Steve Carrigan on July 1 presented the results of a recent voter opinion survey to help leaders develop a ballot strategy for two potential tax measures, and a package of proposed amendments to the City Charter.
The tax measures include a general obligation bond for a new Police Department headquarters, a new firehouse and other facilities, and a possible extension of the Measure C sales tax for public safety services.

City Council members are trying to decide on what, if anything, to include in the upcoming 2020 election season. There will be a primary vote in March, followed by the General Election later in November.

Last July, after a similar voter opinion survey, the council decided to not place the police-fire facilities measure on the November 2018 ballot. The survey results estimated there wasn’t enough support to gain the two-thirds, or 67 percent public approval needed.

This year, in June, survey questions were put forth by FM3 Research, an Oakland firm that conducted 440 telephone interviews with likely voters in Merced. There was a 5 percent margin of error.

Once again, voters were asked about a “Fire/Emergency Response/Police Facilities Upgrade Measure.” They were asked if they would approve a property tax of $58 per $100,000 of assessed value for 30 years to raise $43 million. Those numbers were down from last year’s survey question that asked for approval of a tax of $68 per $100,000 of assessed value.
This year, some 60 percent of voters said “yes” or leaned toward “yes,” but once again, the responses did not quite gain enough support for the two thirds requirement.

Nevertheless, Carrigan did point to data that showed residents had a highly favorable view of the city’s police and fire efforts, along with a desire to use local taxpayer dollars to improve public safety, to improve 911 services, maintain fire services, and increase neighborhood policing — all things that bode well for an extension of Measure C.

Tale of two measures
Measure C is a voter approved half-cent sales tax that started in 2006. Over the years, the funding has been responsible for maintaining the salaries of close to three dozen police and fire employees. However, the measure sunsets in 2026. Six years from now is not a lot of time for a city facing the mounting CalPERS pension contribution crisis. Leaders find themselves scrambling to find solutions for uninterrupted Measure C funding and avoid potential layoffs.

Meanwhile, as the mayor points out, a new headquarters for the Police Department is long overdue. The current Main Station at M and 22nd streets is old, outdated, and already expanded past its limits. For more than a decade, however, city leaders and staff have flip-flopped on where to build a new one and/or debated what exactly is needed and how much it will cost. Years ago, a site across from Raley’s Supermarket was purchased for the station, but the idea was later abandoned, reportedly due to the land’s commercial potential. Today the site remains undeveloped though Valley Children’s Hospital is expected to open a medical facility there in the near future. The city ended up choosing and purchasing the former Merced Sun-Star property on G Street for the new police headquarters. Debate ensued on whether or not to demolish the existing building on site, options for new designs and development impacts. In December, the city selected an architect to develop a preliminary design and cost estimate for the station, but few details have been revealed publicly.

“We are trying to get it right,” admitted Councilman Matthew Serratto. “We talk about about messaging, about communication with the community, but my instinct is that it’s a tough sell to try and get two thirds of the people to vote for a nice, fancy new police station. … It’s certainly a priority. It’s certainly would be nice to have. We certainly need it. … [but] Measure C should be a priority, and it’s a much easier sell to the people. … So if it comes down in 2020 to Measure C and the police station, I think our community needs Measure C … When you are talking about 32 or 33 police and fire employees who depend on that money, I think every single person in this town will support that over a new police station.”
Not so fast, says Michael Belluomini, who served on the council from 2014 to 2018. He says there is a possibility the community would support funding a new police station. But he says the city has got the numbers wrong, and they’re not being completely transparent about the plans.

Belluomini said he was one of those surveyed in June, and was asked about the facilities bond (for a police station). He wonders why the city is asking voters to approve $58 of tax “when only $39 is needed.”

Belluomini spoke up at the July 1 meeting and showed lower numbers from “other financial advisors” that perhaps voters would indeed support.

“The correct tax rate to yield $43 million in bond proceeds is $36.64 per $100,000,” he said. “Perhaps more than 67 percent of the voters [surveyed] would have supported that lower tax.”

Belluomini continued, “The cost of the police station is based on specifications. The city RFP set the design as a station to serve a city of 160,000 people with 200 sworn officers. An architect firm estimates the cost of a police station (70,000 sq. ft.) to serve Merced with 160,000 people is $52 million. Other city developer fees and police surplus property sales of $5.7 million reduces the need for bond funding to $46.2 million. A tax of $39.42 per $100,000 of assessed value will yield this.”
Belluomini then went on to offer an alternative plan to be based on 2050 population projections that put Merced at 123,133 people. “Why design for 160,000?” he asked. “If the ballot measure is approved in March 2020, and the station is completed in December of 2022, than it will be half empty and seem overbuilt for decades.”
He said taxpaying residents would resent that.

Belluomini data shows with a lowered population projection, and a staff of 150 sworn officers, instead of 200, the total cost of the police station would be around $33 million. He goes on to add developer fees, city surplus sales, and the cost of new fire facilities needed, and estimates the total need for bond financing is $36.9 million, requiring a tax of $32 per $100,000 of assessed value.

“This will build two fire stations and the new police station,” he said.

Mayor Murphy agreed with the need to look at the numbers, and for the city to shine a light on plans for the station.
“From my vantage point, I think we need to have some real clarity around what the needs assessment is,” Murphy pointed out. “What is the police station that we want to build? — taking into account population assumptions, police substations … Planning for the future. We want to make it big enough for future growth, but we don’t want to overbuild either, and we certainly don’t want to have any resentment in the community for having done that.”

Belluomini also pointed out, “In a broader principle point of view, what’s missing is all the planning concepts behind this. Which properties are you going to sell? Where are you going to develop? The timing? None of that has been discussed or come out in any kind of document that the public can see.”

The former councilman later told the Times, “An environmental document, EIR, is a good first step because it will require a clear definition of scope of the project.”

Carrigan said he is meeting with consultants this week on a needs assessment draft plan for public safety facilities, along with survey results and a plan for educating the public. Staff is aiming to report back in August. They say it’s still possible to put one or both tax measures on a ballot in 2020 if that’s the desire of the council, but the timeline for doing that would be a tight one.

Charter changes
The City of Merced Charter has not been updated in over a decade, and Mayor Murphy has been the strongest proponent on the Council for new amendments.

Carrigan points out that over the last decade, there have been dramatic changes in how local government operates, community expectations and needs, and the overall environment.

The recent survey asked about proposed amendments to the City Charter, described as:
• Prohibit council members / mayor from accepting gifts from lobbyists/contractors;
• Impose ethics rules for elected official conduct;
• Impose a limit of two consecutive 4-year mayoral terms (this is actually an expansion of the mayoral term which is currently limited to two, 2-year terms);
• Enable use of available cash funds for public services /financial stability (regarding $4 million fund set aside as per current City Charter);
• Prohibit lobbyists from serving on city commissions;
• Provide council members / mayor with a monthly $600 stipend;
• Establish a citywide citizens tax accountability committee / mandatory annual audits.

If these are placed on a voter ballot, they would need a simple majority to pass. Carrigan said a majority of the proposed Charter amendments scored very well in the survey, with the exception of stipends for council members. He said addressing the stipends issue could jeopardize support for the other measures. He said city staff recommends they move forward with Charter amendments for the March 2020 primary vote, along with “a lot of education” to be shared with the public.

Mayor Murphy stressed that the council needs input from the newly formed Charter Review Committee, which was to meet this week.

Overall outlook
In order of importance, according to the recent survey, the top concerns for Merced voters were: Homelessness (by far), followed by gangs, illegal drug activity, jobs and the economy, the cost of health care, the cost of housing and rent, crime in general, a lack of recreation programs for youth, the cost of living, the condition of local parks, waste in government, traffic congestion, the amount of local taxes people pay, how quickly police and fire respond to 911 calls, the amount of illegal immigration, flooding after major storms, the risk of rapidly spreading neighborhood fires, and too much growth and development.

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