Planning Commission Votes 5-0 to Limit Size of Frazier Park Estates Development

  • Frank Arciero, Jr., developer of Frazier Park Estates, as the third member of the Kern County Planning Commission votes

    Frank Arciero, Jr., developer of Frazier Park Estates, as the third member of the Kern County Planning Commission votes "aye," to radically cut back his proposal from 662 to 188 houses, signaling that the vote on October 8 is going to be very different than the promise he saw on August 27 when four commissioners split, 2-2. [Penland photo]

By Patric Hedlund

Bakersfield (Oct. 8, 2009, 11:30 p.m.)—”I’m going to sit down and regroup and see what the magic number is,” said Frank Arciero, Jr. Thursday night at 10:30 p.m., still reeling at the Kern County Planning Commission’s 5-0 vote to dump his Frazier Park Estates proposal. Commissioners unanimously supported a radically scaled-back version recommended by county staff. The matter is tentatively slated to go before the board of supervisors December 8.

Arciero & Son’s Fallingstar Homes had proposed to construct 662 houses on the mountain slopes surrounding Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec (near Peace Valley Road), with 41 multi-family housing units and 106,000 sq. ft. of commercial space. The planning staff’s alternative proposal is for only 188 homes but maintains all the proposed commercial development adjacent to the Flying J Travel Plaza and Frazier Mtn. Park Road.

In an interview after the vote, Arciero said he had already done a feasibility analysis with a scientist at California State University in Bakersfield to see whether the planners’ idea of 188 homes was viable. “It just doesn’t work economically,” he said. “Now I have to just sleep on it for a few nights” to come up with an alternate approach. He said in August that he had already invested $6 million into planning, research and design for the project with Cornerstone Engineering.

Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County Planning Department special projects division chief, said her staff has a duty to maintain the Kern County Hillside Development Ordinance “for which we’ve never granted an exception” since it was created in 1986. She told the commissioners, “If you recommend this ordinance be set aside for lot yield, then this ordinance is no longer useful to the planning department because every developer in the future will seek to use this precedent.”

She also said there was a responsibility to uphold the Frazier Park-Lebec Specific Plan which embodies the wishes of the community for their own area. Arciero’s project is a major departure from the goals endorsed by the community for the mountainous area along  Interstate 5.

Arciero’s first plan proposed to excavate 6.6 million cubic feet of soil, with mountainsides blasted and bulldozed, including areas of 65 percent slope. It was the most massive “cut and fill” request ever submitted to Kern County, Oviatt said. In a new proposal submitted last week, Arciero reduced that to 4.4 million c.f. of earthmoving, eliminated blasting around the high school, and downsized from 662 to 601 lots so that of the 847 acres in the development, development was focused on 356 acres with the rest left as open space. A major exposed section of the San Andreas Fault runs through the site, which is mandated by state law to be left undeveloped.

But it was the dispute over adequacy of water supplies that dominated the evening.

Water, Water…
At the center of the night’s conflict was a “dueling slide rules” epic as commissioners listened to detailed arguments about methods of calculating how much water may be available from the eastern Cuddy Creek water basin. They heard widely divergent precipitation estimates for the Lebec region and appeared dizzy—but attentive—at the rapid succession of charts and graphs.

On one side stood Ken Hurst, a Ph.D. geologist from Colombia University and employee at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on Mars landing projects, who is also President of the El Tejon Unified School District Board of Trustees. Acting ETUSD Superintendent Danny Whetton introduced him with a plea that the commissioners “pay attention to the data” because the high school’s well is on the same aquifer as Arciero’s land. He said the school district’s primary responsibility is to the health and safety of the students. “We can’t make the assumption that we can put more straws into [this aquifer] without having an impact on our district’s water supply, and what will we do if there is no water [for the school]?”

Hurst gave a detailed illustrated analysis of three major flaws in the water supply estimates presented in the developer’s environmental impact report (EIR). He used 59 years of historic data to show that the 19 inches per year precipitation projection used in the EIR was “highly optimistic,” and that a more realistic historic average for Lebec is 14.6 inches. He said “evapotranspiration”—loss of water to vegetation uptake—was not factored into the developer’s model (accounting for about 150 acre-feet per year), and the target of reclaiming 60 percent of all water pumped from the aquifer for use on landscape maintenance, as claimed achievable in the EIR, is beyond the ability of even more arid regions.

Attorney Dennis Mullins (formerly the general counsel for the Tejon Ranch Company) spoke for the Lebec County Water District Board whose consultants Kennedy/Jenks warned of danger to existing Lebec residents if 662 additional homes were built there. Some Lebec wells have already gone dry in the past few summers. Over the past three years, both Frazier Park Public Utility District and the Lebec County Water District have rejected the developer’s repeated requests that they annex the Frazier Park Estates project. “There is a good reason why two water districts have turned him [Arciero] down,” Mullins said.

Mullins talked about the topography of the section of the aquifer on which the high school well and Arciero’s production well sit, saying that in dry years it does not recharge rapidly. Juggling a pencil to emulate a well shaft as his hands formed a ‘V’ shape, he said, “The tilt of the basin is a problem and where Mr. Arciero can put his well is a problem” resulting in slow recharge. He said Arciero’s production well was “de-watered in 20 hours” during a pump test run for the EIR report. If there were houses there, “that well must run 24/7” and must even increase its capacity to provide protection in the case of fire, but “this well sucked air in less than 24 hours; that is not acceptable.”

Hurst said that there is not enough water to support the proposed development plus currently existing needs: “Adding another water source drawn from the same aquifer will not solve the problem. You need another source outside of this aquifer.”

Jim Beck, General Manager of the Kern County Water Agency, was called upon by the planning department. He submitted comments by two hydrogeologists and a resource planner “who evaluated the EIR in detail. We conclude that the ability of the project to recover enough water to support the project is not sufficient.”

Sounding very much like the reports written by the Mountain Community’s Doug Peters, heard at meetings of the TriCounty Watchdogs and published in The Mountain Enterprise over the last three years, Beck criticized projections in the EIR, this time for the well water levels of “30 feet” that his group found to actually be at 65 and 165 feet. In addition, “We were concerned about the limited amount of data used to draw some very significant conclusions…[and] about the amount of extrapolation based on one pump test…. This did not analyze peak summertime demands…We believe more information should have gone into the [Frazier Park Estates] analysis to make such an important assessment.”

The Developer Responds
Speaking for the developer, Cornerstone Engineering’s Derrill W. Whitten, Jr. said that the Cuddy Valley Groundwater Basin has about 19,600 acre-feet of storage. He spoke of his consultant Ken Schmidt’s study and “a conservative analysis by the Galli Group” that estimated about 1600 ac-ft of recharge to the three-mile-long, half-mile wide east sub-basin, with more in wet years. “Mr Schmidt said it has about 7,000 ac-ft of storage.” He explained the EIR’s seven-year drought analysis. He said they have a data collector at B & B Concrete which has been collecting hourly data for 2.5 years. “The first year we saw a 36-foot drop in one year…and we were nervous…2000 acre-feet of water just leaked out of that basin,” Whitten said, but then added that “2005 was a wet year, and the recharge in 2005 filled up the aquifer.” He said that in 2008 with the spring recharge, the water table dropped another foot. “Then in 2009, one of the driest years on record, the water table dropped to 157 feet, a drop of about seven feet since January.”

He mentioned additional analysis by Ken Schmidt, but was stopped from going further or asking Schmidt to speak at the podium when Oviatt asked the chair of the commission to “remind Mr. Whitten that Ken Schmidt did provide extensive data in the record. There are a number of problems with the approach taken for the rainfall data…” Whitten brisked over a quick defense of varying rainfall estimates for the Mountain Communities region and said the Kennedy/Jenks consultants had not looked at the “sonic log” before they made their conclusions.

In closing, he said that “We’ve taken our project out of the canyons and off the mountain tops. It is not a flat site. It is a mountainous area. It is just ‘bumps’ we want to grade, an estimated 47 acres…There is plenty of water to serve this [development] plus the rest of the Frazier Park area.” Then he added, almost under his breath: “This project should not go forward until we have proven we have enough water for fire concerns.”

In summary, Oviatt recommended that the commissioners include a recommendation for an offsite water source and a new water supply assessment. She said that the public entity responsible for the water would need to apply a water budget for each home and require that there be a strict adherence to fire fighting requirements because the assessment does not verify that it is possible “to run those pumps at the maximum” in the case of a fire emergency.

Signaling she felt an impasse had been reached, Oviatt said, “We contine to recommend to Cornerstone Engineering (Arciero’s developing agent) that they continue to examine the parcel to determine whether they can redesign to bring homes closer to the east side of the area to diminish the amount of cut and fill.”

On August 27 the commissioners split 2-2 on whether to support Arciero’s original proposal for 662 homes or the planning staff’s alternative for only 188. The tie-breaker was expected to be the fifth commissioner, Chris Babcock, whose absence made it necessary to reschedule and resume the entire hearing on October 8.

But—following the supervisors’ unanimous approval just two days earlier for the nearby Tejon Mountain Village which plans to build 3,450 homes plus 750 resort hotel rooms—Commissioners Flores and Sprague proved to be unexpectedly fickle in their affection for Arciero’s project.

Commissioner Jeff Flores, who had embraced Arciero’s project a month earlier, saying he liked the houses perched on the mountain ridges because they “look like Spain,” said he had been visited in advance of this second meeting by “Mr. James, an attorney for the Lebec Water District, about the Kennedy/Jenks water assessment.” He said he concurs with those who said that development could benefit the area, but now feels the county’s hillside ordinance “is functioning well and is to be respected; it is meaningful. I see no reason why the exception should be granted. I will err on the side of caution on the water issues. I support the staff recommendation.” With that, he changed his vote.

Commissioner Ron Sprague, who had aroused the ire of Mountain Community observers on August 27 by saying this development would pull Frazier Mountain “out of its hole,” summarized his thoughts now in a meandering comment about the “need for more development in the area” and “the general plan asks that you include some multi-family that is needed for that area.” He thanked those who had come to testify and said, “I want to tell you that I’ve reread a lot of the material and all the new material, including Mr. Schmidt’s…I want to tell you after Mr. Beck’s testimony, I would have to move with the staff report, too.” And he, too, voted for the scaled-down staff proposal.

The former swing vote, Commissioner Chris Babcock, said that “it boils down to health, safety and welfare of the existing neighborhood. Cut and fill engineering strategies have changed over the years because we have seen failures. We have learned from our mistakes. I cannot support an applicant who wants to build against standards that are set for safety…Water is an unknown to me and I can’t support the larger amount of homes based on the…water we have here. I will follow staff suggestion.”

Commissioner Peter Belluomini concurred that “development brings good things…but the topic that floats to the top today is water. The best answers are crystal clear,” he said as he held aloft his glass of drinking water, adding, “The proposal is murky. The trimmed-down version is better…cloudy is better than murky.” He said that he relied on the “least biased” opinion of Mr. Beck and supports the staff’s suggestions.

Commissioner Leticia Perez said, “It has been demonstrated that the hillside ordinance was there when the applicant began. That was a business prerogative [to pursue a design in defiance of the hillside ordinance], but that does not mean an automatic approval.” She also mentioned the need to maintain the integrity of the specific plan. She said if the Frazier Park/Lebec Specific Plan were ignored it would set a precedent on a county-wide basis: “I would support the staff recommendation.”

This is part of the October 02, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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