Change to “open space” could signal freedom from resort development
Early last month, by a 4-1 vote, Mammoth Lakes Town Council started the process of changing the General Plan zoning designation of the so-called “Bell-Shaped Parcel” from resort to “open space.”
Mammoth Lakes Planning Commissioners held a public hearing this week to take up the issue and make their recommendation to Council as to the controversial property’s final disposition.
Roughly two-thirds of the parcel’s 16 acres, not all of it contiguous, make up a wetland conservation area. Commissioners and staff also noted that a recent joint effort by Mayor Neil McCarroll and the Eastern Sierra Land Trust to establish a conservation easement didn’t pan out, thus leading to the zone change plan.
Staff’s report to Commissioners said the change is consistent within the General Plan and is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) scrutiny, since it’s already designed to reduce any negative impacts.
Commissioner Elizabeth Tenney was at first concerned that the “open space” designation doesn’t have any development standards per se. Massive parking lot paving, she said, could be “troubling.” Community Development Director Mark Wardlaw responded that staff was simply informing planners “just what the zoning code allows.”
If a plan for use is brought forward, he added, the Planning Commission could determine at that time if a parking lot of any particular size is a good idea or best use of the space. The standard, he indicated, wouldn’t necessarily be “exact” or “arbitrary,” but should be “reasonable.”
The northernmost 7.9 acres (apart from any wetlands) is technically open to development. A judgment on the parcel’s title as signed by Judge Ed Forstenzer, however, calls for “recreational and arts” usage, according to staff.
Value of the parcel has been an issue in several previous discussions and actions.
During that previous Council meeting, Council member Skip Harvey said he hoped the remainder will, in its new context, turn into a “benefit for the town” as a park, entertainment venue and holiday/community event gathering spot. Council member John Eastman, conversely, suggested that a zoning change be left to the voters, given the parcel’s potential financial value, which he said could be in the millions of dollars.
Commission Vice Chair Tony Barrett, while not against the change, said he would like to know what the Town loses in assets. That amount is as yet undetermined, though Wardlaw posited that in an open market, land designated as “open space” typically doesn’t have a high dollar value. He also said that questions of density are not within the Town’s scope of analysis under a land use designation, but estimated it would probably have little or no effect on Persons At One Time (PAOT) or buildout.
Planners also wanted to make sure that staff’s work on the parcel isn’t holding up work on the Zoning Code amendment. Wardlaw replied that amending the Code is a priority for both the Planning Commission and Town Council, but Council said they wanted the Bell Parcel item done “expediently,” and took into consideration the impact as such on staff’s Work Program.
Given the Town’s checkered history of farming out work to third-party contractors, staff said it was more efficient to do the work internally and minimize cost to the General Fund.
During public testimony, Leigh Gaasch said she was all in favor of the zoning change. The town, she opined, doesn’t have enough such areas and is “more valuable with more open space.”
Tenney said that, similar to Harvey, she’d like to see the land used “interpretively.” She’s not opposed to some kind of limited development there, but is more interested in cultivating its intrinsic natural value.
Commissioner Sharon Clark said that in light of the failure to obtain a conservation easement, she thinks what Council has done is appropriate.
On a legal note, Commissioner Jay Deinken said that he would like to find out whether there is any kind of statute of limitation on the title judgment, which staff said it would look into. In any case, Wardlaw said that zoning would not supersede any deed restrictions on the property.
Barrett’s only final comments were that he was still concerned about the appraisal of the property and transfer of any density assigned to it, both of which are questions he said are still “laying there, but not addressed.”
The Commission, absent Chair Rhonda Duggan, voted 4-0 to recommend the zoning change to Council, which will make a final determination on the parcel during its June 2 meeting.