Video: HMB Planning Commission questions city’s sale of land

By on Sat, January 27, 2007

Darin Boville
Planning Commissioner Kevin Lansing questions city staff.
Full meeting (1 hour)  width= | Quicktime | Flash |
Highlights (about 10 min)  width= | Quicktime | Flash |

The sale of land by the city of Half Moon Bay to an elected water district director has set off a controversy in the city’s planning commission.

In April 2005, in a closed session, the City Council agreed to sell a lot on Highway 1, just north of the former Ono Grill [Google map], to Ken Coverdell, the owner of an adjacent lot. Coverdell is a director the County Coastside Water District (CCWD). Coverdell plans to merge the two lots in order to build an undisclosed visitor-serving project. The sale came before the planning commission because the city still hasn’t completed the sale, which it must do before Coverdell can apply for a permit.

Planning Commissioner Kevin Lansing has raised concerns that the selling price of $180,000 was significantly less than the property is worth.  Citing advertisements for similar property in the most recent Half Moon Bay Review, some commissioners suggested that value was closer to $275,000 to $300,000. Lansing was also concerned that the city agreed to pay half the closing costs for the sale when the usual practice is for the buyer to pay.

Several questions were raised at the meeting that remain to be answered. City staff contend that the planning commission has no right to question a sale that was decided by the city council and that because the decision was made in a closed session, the city doesn’t have to reveal how it came to a price.

In one dramatic moment, after a motion was seconded and just before the mattter came to a vote, city staff produced a letter from the city attorney that it offered to share with the commission during a recess on as privileged basis.

The plannning commission voted to continue the item, with direction to staff to bring back evidence to show whether the City had received fair value for the property and whether the land had been offered in a way that would allow other members of the public a chance to make an offer. The motion passed 4 to 3. Voting yes: Kevin Lansing, Jack McCarthy, Linda Poncini, Doug Snow. Voting No: Thomas Roman, Patric Johnsson, Jeff Allis

This is not a simple partisan squabble of the type that the Coastside is used to.  The deal was made by the previous city council majority (council members Mike Ferreira, Jim Grady, Marina Fraser, and David Gorn were in the closed meeting) to Coverdell, a CCWD director and political ally of the current city council majority.  Lansing was nominated to the planning commission by David Gorn.

I have no objections to closed sessions regarding the selling of real estate parcels to individuals, but when the individual wanting to buy a HMB parcel is an elected official, it seems to me that the whole transaction should be as transparent as possible.  After the price is established, what else needs to be withheld from the public in closed session?

The community needs to know that city parcels being sold to our city officials is on the up and up so extra diligence should be taken. The public should also know the City’s policy of selling our surplus property.  Do we even have one?

Knowing that Ken Coverdell is not a political ally of the majority council in 2005 and knowing the integrity of those councilmembers, I’m sure due diligence was done.  Closed sessions still continue over this deal with the new administration.

I don’t understand the stonewalling by City staff when the Commissioners asked for documents about this commercial land deal.  Since the City advertised the property as required, then it should be a simple matter to provide the paperwork.  Commissioner Lansing provided Staff with six questions way in advance of the meeting that went unheeded, even when staff had the answers.  The most ludicrous thing I saw was the waving of the attorney’s letter at the Commissioners saying we have it but it can’t be shared in public.  Paraphrasing “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” this sounds like a case of “I don’t got to show you no documents.”

Dana asks a very pertinent question: 

What is the City policy on disposal of surplus property?  I followed the Pt. Montara Fire Protection District sale of a lot here in Montara.  The only information not disclosed to the public was the name of the buyer.  It was discussed at several board meetings.

However, several questions come to mind as a follow up:

What other property does HMB own? 
Who approached whom on the sale of this lot? 
Why was it declared surplus when it was?
What other uses that meet public needs were explored for it?
How will this controversy affect the disposition of other lands held by the City? 
As it seems the staff wasn’t able to recommend a policy to the City Council, will the Planning Commission do so?