In this recessed economy, local developer Bob Stark maintains he’s the only builder in two counties (Mono and Inyo) with a sizeable subdivision in process. White Mountain Estates is a 76-acre, 45-lot subdivision located about two miles north of the Inyo-Mono county line, just east of Hwy 6 at White Mountain Rd.
On Tuesday, Mono County’s Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on possible addendums to the project’s Environmental Impact Report and amendments to the Specific Plan and Tentative Tract Map that would make it easier for Stark to get the development off the drawing board and onto the dirt.
According to Mono County Planner Gerry Le Francois, the plan for the development was adopted by the County in November 2007, and includes the completed EIR.
At the core of the addendums and amendments was a request submitted by Stark for relief of a part of the plan that reads, “The developer shall make improvements to WM Estates Road, including relocation of the cattle guard, implement traffic-calming measures and improve the easterly 900-foot part of the road.”
Stark was requesting to pay the County in advance for grinding and resurfacing of the road on the 900-foot section he is responsible for. Since the County is already moving forward with road improvements on the rest of White Mountain Road that runs through the development area, this would avoid a road gap.
The result, Stark determined, would be better if it’s all done at once and by the same contractor.
Stark was also requesting some relief regarding the islands called for by the traffic-calming requirement.
Le Francois said that in terms of fiscal impact, it comes down to method of construction. If the County carries through with its own criteria, it would add more expensive design features in terms of shoulder and other road improvements than would have been done by the developer alone.
Steve Kappos, attorney for the applicant, said what’s driving the requests for relief is the terrible shape of the economy and the costs of completing the development.
Kappos said Stark was having to deal with a road that was 30 years old, with more than 200 cracks and no striping to speak of, and argued there is no real cost to the county based on what the developer was required to do. “There has never been a demonstrated need for any traffic-calming on that road, or that the public would even appreciate any such measure,” Kappos told the supervisors.
Stark said the island costs started out at $45,000 and have been steadily creeping up. He also opined that island type measures, such as those used in Crowley, are both expensive and largely disliked by residents.
If mandated, he would have to bond the additional cost of installing islands. Stark, however, conceded that if the Board thinks a traffic calming measure is necessary, a tabletop-type of speed bump would run tens of thousands of dollars less, a cost he said was “more acceptable.”
Traffic calming, he said, was a surprise from the outset, sprung on him from out of the blue and putting him on the spot to accept it. Stark also pointed out that the expense involved in the grind and overlay standards on the 900 feet of road that is his responsibility didn’t originally include any special backing, which the County plans to use on the shoulders along the rest of the roadway.
“If the County’s going to bring in a contractor [to do the rest of the road], the in and out boot costs are going to be the same with or without the 900 feet, in which case I’d be willing to help share the cost,” Stark said.
That having been said, he outlined his other financial challenges. “The economy’s died. I don’t have any clients. The value of the property has dropped 33% and the cost of the development had ballooned from $1.6 million to almost $3 million,” he stated. “It’s been a debacle, and if the time it takes to build something with the County continues to be a multi-year prospect, I can’t see much happening in this or any other county.”
Stark added he’s trying to keep the cost of a 1,600 square foot home with a garage on a half-acre piece of property under $300,000. “That’s hard to do. I’m going to work 7 years and not get paid for it, but maybe get my money back. That’s what the economy’s come to today.”
“I’m incredibly sympathetic to [Mr. Stark] and what he’s been through,” remarked Supervisor Hap Hazard, whose district includes White Mountain Estates. “The phasing got stalled and went through several legal and project revisions, as well as soil, seismic and environmental studies.”
Hazard acknowledged efforts to build quality, affordable homes, but added he thinks these will be bought mostly by people who are going to work and put money into Bishop, not Mono County. Nonetheless, he recognized that the development’s been approved, and with the precarious nature of the economy, that some building is better than none.
Traffic calming, however, is going to be an issue in the future, Hazard thinks. “People aren’t going to slow down [on White Mountain Road] until they get to their turn off.”
Stark pointed out that drainage measures, dips and other types of natural speed obstacles currently exist, which will automatically lead to some traffic slowing.
The Mono County Planning Commission approved the project without traffic calming measures, but wasn’t specific as to the amount of any in-lieu fees that would be paid by Stark. Taking all that into consideration, the Board proposed that the County would cover shoulder and striping work, including upgrades on the entire road, provided Stark pays for the basic road rehab of the 900-foot section as outlined in 2007, and adds the tabletop traffic calming measures rather than the islands. Stark agreed.
Timing of those calming measures was the last detail to be worked out.
“Putting in the tabletop today may not be appropriate, given that he doesn’t have clients for the community just yet. The community may end up with tabletop speed bumps and homes that don’t sell for a while,” Hazard said.
Board Chair Byng Hunt agreed, and the Board collectively, along with staff input, worked out a deal within which installation of the speed bumps could be “postponed” until Stark has sold at least five homes, and wouldn’t need to be completed at the time the final tract map is approved.