Something Smells In Tustin




…And that smell is coming from City Hall, where Mayor Jerry Amante has been leading a city challenge of the Tustin Unified School District, supposedly over the issue of whether the city has the legal right to inspect school district grading and building projects within Tustin City Limits. My gut tells me there is more to this battle than a simple jurisdictional dispute.

The issue seems to have begun with the city’s development back in the 90’s of a re-use plan for the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station – you know – the place with those two big WWII blimp hangars. Just like Irvine’s Great Park plan, Tustin’s plan counted on a partnership with one or more developers to pay big bucks, including site improvement fees, for land on the base to build houses and commercial development, including a hotel and golf course. And, just like Irvine, Tustin has found out that grand plans based on so called public-private partnerships can evaporate into thin air when the economy tanks.

So, the base redevelopment is partly done, but vast areas of land and military buildings stand empty and the money anticipated from developers to build infrastructure and to pay for schools that were to be constructed on the property has not materialized. The base school construction issue seems to be at the source of the city-school district battle.

The cty’s plan for the base included a new high school to be developed by Tustin Unified School District. The idea was that this school would be built with developer fees and/or state school construction money, and then the current Tustin High School site that is virtually in the center of Tustin would be sold for development, with the city controlling what was developed on that site through zoning controls.

The city wanted the school district to sign an agreement that it would build the new high school within 5 years, and the school district balked because it could not identify a certain source of construction funds and recognized that the private sector development of the base that was to generate some fees (and the students to help justify moving a high school out of the center of Tustin to its southerly fringes) was running into the reality of a slumping economy. So, the city’s grand scheme involving the current Tustin High School site was stopped dead.

The city has tried to thwart the development of school sites by the school district within the city limits, including an elementary school on the base itself, by insisting the school district must come to the city for grading and building permits. The school district said no way – it is exempt from city building ordinances and does not face such demands on school sites it has in Irvine, Santa Ana and the unincorporated North Tustin area.

Eventually the school district filed a lawsuit against the city to try and resolve the issue. The city sought a delay to negotiate a settlement, but according to recent press reports those negotiations were recently terminated by the City.

The press has reported that then, a week ago, the school district discovers that a special emergency meeting of the City Council has been called this past Monday to consider adopting an emergency ordinance dealing with grading inspection. Low and behold the city discovered that its own ordinance exempted the school district from city permit jurisdiction, so the emergency was to change that part of the ordinance.

A recent Orange County Register story reported that when the city Council met for its emergency session a school board member, who also happens to be a Deputy District Attorney, was present to speak in opposition to the proposed ordinance change. Presumably, he would have pointed out that this move smacked of a last minute CYA act by the City Council and was proof that the City’s jurisdictional stance over the last 1 ½ years was without legal foundation.

But according to that Register story the school board member never really got a chance to speak. When it was his turn, the Mayor abruptly recessed the meeting. Before it was all over, the school board member was escorted (another word for thrown out) from the meeting. Finally there was a vote, and the ordinance change failed to garner the 4 votes it needed, receiving only 3. So, the school district-city lawsuit is now scheduled to go to trial, perhaps as early as next week with the city ordinance exempting the school district from city grading permit jurisdiction remaining in place.

So, is this really just about grading and building permit jurisdiction? Skeptic that I am, I doubt it. I have to wonder what the city fathers really had in mind for the Tustin High School property and what developers were in the wings, most likely with retained lobbyists, working the City Council on this issue. A developer could make millions by buying the site with zoning for a school, then getting a zone change for residential or commercial development from a friendly city, especially if most of the City Council was in the developer’s pockets. The land value would triple or quadruple over night with such a zone change. It would not be the first time in this county’s colorful history that one or more elected officials had a behind the scenes economic interest in the outcome of a land development deal.

This whole thing does not pass the giggle test. I can’t wait for more details to come out – maybe we will even find out the reason that the new City Manager hired by the Council last fall was let go after only 4 months on the job. Could this be related to the School District-City battle and the web of intrigue that surrouds it? Something smells.

About Over But Not Out

A retired Orange County employee, and moderate Republican. The editor seriously does not know OBNO's identity as did not the former editor, but his point of view is obviously interesting and valued.