Along a four-mile corridor of Bristol Street in Santa Ana, fenced in vacant lots are a common sight. There’s enough dormant dirt to total more than 400,000 square feet of land combined. For the past two years, activists have campaigned to keep “community lands in community hands,” seeing potential in transforming the 88 city-owned parcels into affordable housing projects and pocket parks.
Following last night’s Santa Ana city council meeting, realizing that vision may be a little further out of reach.
Instead, the city looked at soliciting Request for Proposals (RFPs) for 23 combined parcels that account for 83 of the vacant lots and engaging in direct negotiations for five remaining substandard left-over plots from the Bristol Corridor street widening project. A staff report projected $10 million in sales from the land, money that’d go back to agencies, like the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), that helped fund the widening project through grants. The proposed benefit to Santa Ana would come in the form of property and sales tax from whatever developments arise.
The plan to sell off the land met resistance as it did before when first on the Feb. 19 agenda.
“A coalition of residents have asked the city to prioritize public land for the public good for over two years now,” said Hilda Ortiz, a program coordinator at Latino Health Access. “We wonder why the staff is trying to move these parcels so quickly with some of the newer council members not being fully aware of the issue.” She cited a survey of voters in three wards her group conducted back in 2017 that found an overwhelming desire to have more affordable housing, parks and community gardens.
Community groups warned the city that they could be in violation of the state’s Surplus Land Act should they approve plans to put the plots up for bid. On Feb. 26, the Partnership for Working Families sent a letter to city council members on behalf of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). It referenced a phone call between OCCORD’s attorney and assistant city attorney John Funk where it’s claimed that Funk argued the Surplus Land Act didn’t apply since Santa Ana held the parcels “for the purposes of exchange,” something that allows them an exception under the law.
“We believe that the Surplus Land Act applies,” said Karen Rodriguez, a Santa Ana resident and community organizer with OCCORD, at last night’s council meeting. “The city has misled the community by having inconsistent staff reports claiming these lands as undevelopable and to be used for community benefit and later claiming they are, in fact, exempt from the Surplus Land Act, in [an] attempt to circumvent the state law requirements to provide affordable housing and open space.”
The law holds that when local agencies sell or lease land it has no longer need for, they must prioritize it for affordable housing developments. Funk followed up with a letter to OCCORD’s attorney dated yesterday holding firm. “The City’s belief remains that the properties proposed for disposition under this agenda item fall outside the scope of the Surplus Land Act because they have never been necessary for the City’s use to begin with and were always being held by the agency for the purposes of exchange,” he wrote. In the staff report for last night’s meeting, the city doubled-down in stating the parcels were exempt.
Santa Ana’s community land trust movement did score an early victory last year, albeit away from Bristol Street, when the city entered into exclusive negotiations with THRIVE Santa Ana to confer a rubble-strewn lot on the corner of Daisy Avenue and Walnut Street. The non-profit seeks to transform it into a microfarm to serve the surrounding neighborhood. Negotiations continue with an expected vote to come soon.
This time around, council members remained adamant about staying the course with Bristol Street while considering how future developments on parcels could benefit the community beyond tax revenue. “We can put them out to bid, get proposals for it, but at the end, maybe the city decides to not sell a few,” said councilman Jose Solorio. “Maybe the city should consider buying some of these for open space, a pocket park, affordable housing.”
Councilman Vicente Sarmiento later added that while the parcels are exempt from the Surplus Land Act, the principles of the law could otherwise be promoted in the RFPs going forward. “If we put them out to bid without any sort of direction or any sort of guidelines, then we can come back with a lot of different results that later on we may regret,” he said.
City attorney Sonia Carvalho noted during council discussion that, as long as council members accepted the legal analysis of exemption, there’s nothing stopping them from adding what they’d want to the RFP process. And with that, council voted unanimously to put the parcels up for bid.
Whether paying fealty to the spirit of the Surplus Land Act while claiming exemption is good enough to deter advocates from making good on their threat of litigation remains to be seen.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!