Air center poses dilemma for district

   Ramona Air Center has asked the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) to consider a special taxing district to fund additional fire protection deemed necessary for the airport’s expansion plans.

   Similar to a Mello-Roos, a Community Facilities District (CFD) “is a financing mechanism to provide capital for development that is needed for publicly-owned infrastructure,” public finance attorney Kim Byrens, a partner with Best Best & Krieger LLP, explained to the RMWD board members at their June 22 meeting.

The CFD would affect only owners or tenants of the proposed RAC development.

   The 50-acre  air center calls for construction of private and public aircraft hangars and tie-downs for an additional 259 aircraft, along with ancillary aircraft support facilities, to be constructed on the north side of Montecito Road opposite the existing air field. 

   The private aviation portion would include 52 two-story and four one-story aircraft hangars with maximum height of 40 feet, and a 4,000-square-foot clubhouse for a Hangar Owners Association. 

   The public aviation portion would include 203 aircraft hangars, a Ramona Air Center office and deli, 15 office units and one aviation food service building totaling 44,000 square feet. 

   Karl Higgins, a partner with Ramona Air Center, said that when the property is subdivided the center would obligate future purchasers on the private portion to the proposed tax assessment on their hangar. On the public portion of land, owned by the county, Higgins said a tenant renting a hangar could be charged the tax. 

   According to a report by Ramona Fire Marshal Saul Villagomez and San Diego County Fire Authority Fire Marshal Paul Dawson, the revised fire protection plan (FFP) shows major insufficiencies are emergency response travel time, adequate staffing to nationally recognized standards for anticipated incidents, and Montecito Road exceeds the maximum allowable dead-end fire access road distance.

   The maximum allowable travel time is five minutes, but the travel time calculated from Fire Station 80 to the most remote building in the proposed airport center is 6-1/2 minutes.

   “Our joint concern is that along with its many benefits, the RAC increases the potential for fires, emergency medical incidents, hazmat incidents and aircraft-related rescues,” Villagomez and Dawson stated in the report. “Emergency operational considerations of these potential incidents point to a shorter, not longer response time as being appropriate.”

   “The fire marshal has made the public safety determination that we need additional resources to adequately serve certain portions of the district,” Higgins told the board. “One of the portions of the district happens to be the west side of Ramona where there is a deficit in facilities and personnel and service.”

   As more developments such as Montecito Ranch and Cumming Ranch are built in that area, they could be added into the CFD, Higgins noted.

   Higgins said RMWD has not been able to increase the fire and emergency services special tax of $188.52 per EDU (equivalent dwelling unit) which contributes to the funding of fire protection.  In 2005 the RMWD sought to increase the tax to $283.41 per EDU, but the measure did not receive the required two-thirds voter approval. As fire department costs have increased each year, the additional money has come from general fund property taxes received from property owners in the district.

   “In the current political and economic climate the likelihood of getting that passed today, in my personal opinion, is exceptionally low,” said Higgins. “The drain on the general fund for the fire department continues to increase. Your ability to raise capital to fund the needs existing today for the fire department is hamstrung. 

   “You don’t have another finance mechanism other than your EDU tax or to borrow from the general fund. This discussion is not about Ramona Air Center specifically. In its broadest sense this discussion is about how does the fire district adequately provide for the needs of certain portions of the community for public safety? The advantage that Ramona Air Center is offering the district...is a land-owner initiated CFD.” 

   Byrens said the CFD is a benefit to the district and to the developer but “there are ups and there are downs.  In any development and in any special tax, it can go wrong.” 

   Board President Jim Robinson said the water district had a bad experience with a CFD in the mid-1990s, when it entered into one with the Ramona Unified School District for the Mt. Woodson area. The school district administered the CFD and the water district came on board to finance a water tank and pipeline needed for the area. The partners of the Mt. Woodson development, however, went bankrupt and RMWD has never been able to recoup all of its costs.

   “We got slammed,” Robinson said.

   In this case, Byrens noted, the water district would be setting up the CFD and have the advantage of being in the “driver’s seat.”

   Director Bryan Wadlington said the largest cost to provide emergency services would not be the equipment or the building but the personnel.

   Byrens said they could levy two taxes, with a special tax A for the capital portion and special tax B for the services portion. She added that her firm does not recommend a public agency go forward until the developer deposits money to cover the agency’s proceedings, including legal fees, so the district does not have to go out of pocket. 

   Wadlington noted that besides the RAC project, the proposed Montecito Ranch and Cumming Ranch developments would also benefit as they would not be adequately served with emergency services in the present situation.

   “We need another fire station,” he said.  “This could, if done carefully, be the seed that would allow us to do it.  It’s either face the issue now or face the issue later and tell everyone ‘no, you can’t build.’”

   With many questions and concerns remaining about the formation of a CFD for the air center development, the board agreed to have Robinson and Wadlington serve on an ad hoc committee and to allow staff to explore the concept.

   
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