Columbia planners deny apartment proposal

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat March 26, 2013 11:45 am

The developer of a proposed apartment complex in Columbia is getting some resistance to his project. And at the same time, he is seeking a discount on water and sewer connection fees that he says is critical to the development.

The Columbia Area Planning Commission opted last week to deny a special use and design review permit for the Stonewood Sonora apartments that would include 80 units on five acres at Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads. The commission also recommended against approval of the development, which will likely come before the county Board of Supervisors in April.

Opponents to the complex have raised various concerns over the project, both to the commission and to the county Community Resources Agency. Among those concerns are increased traffic in the area, environmental impacts, crime, effects on the local water table and stresses on the road system.

Mike Laird, deputy director at the CRA, and commission Chairman Dale Decker both said attendees at the commission meeting also questioned how any on-site blasting could affect their water sources.

“A lot of people in that area have wells,” Decker said on Monday.

According to documents from the Community Resource Agency, there are also concerns about the site’s historical value. The location was used for placer mining, and there are some concerns that the development will disturb or remove limestone rocks and disturb a historical mining area.

Because of that, a condition was added to the project to encourage the builder to incorporate the rocks into the landscaping.

Tuolumne County is not the only public board who will vote on this project. Tuolumne Utilities District leaders are also mulling over a request by developer RC Equities to pay $50,000 each for one sewer and one water connection for the complex. RC Equities partner Gary Simning, in a letter to the district, said the connections would cost the developer $491,994 for water and $296,460 for sewer.

Simning said the project would have “positive benefits” for the district, generating almost $2 million in sewer and water revenue over 30 years.

When reached on Thursday, he said all the impact fees on the project from the county, school districts and TUD add up to $1.85 million. Development is always a “risky business,” Simning said, and in this economic environment, costs like that make it difficult.

“You just have to feel comfortable going in that all the numbers make sense,” he said.

The request was discussed during a TUD fiscal committee meeting earlier this month and would need approval from the full TUD Board of Directors. District General Manager Pete Kampa told The Union Democrat in an email that he is preparing an analysis of the potential rate reduction at the request of the committee. 

The district will likely return to the developer next week with its own offer, and a proposal could reach the board by April.

“The intent of the reduction is to promote growth in operating revenue (rates paid) as quickly as possible to lighten the financial load on existing district customers and generate more revenue to get more infrastructure repairs completed sooner,” Kampa stated in his email.

This is not the first time Simning has asked for reduced water and sewer costs from TUD for the Columbia apartments. In April and May 2012, he requested connection fees be cut in half for the project. 

The TUD Board of Directors has shifted dramatically since then, with new directors John Maciel, Michael Sarno, Kent Johnson and Jim Grinnell all taking seats on the five-member board in December after running campaigns critical of past district policies.

That request never made it to the full board for approval, with minutes from past committee meetings showing district officials stating that capacity fees exist to make sure there is adequate capacity in the system and the cost is not passed on to other customers.

Johnson, who chairs the finance committee, said on Thursday that he expects the connection fee proposed to the board to be different than the one requested by the developer. But Johnson also declined to provide any estimate.

He said he expects the new board to take a completely different outlook on district issues than previous leadership and be “more accommodating to our customers” beyond this developer.

Simning agreed Thursday, saying his request was not embraced by the past board but decided to come back after the change.

“The sense I got was that the board was not only interested in going in and revisiting the rate issues, but going back and figuring out … how to encourage more connections,” Simning said.