Some 29 Palms Residents Hostile To Cultural Amenities In Resurrected Phoenix Project

The Twentynine Palms City Council is leaning toward including a gym and a library, either as adjuncts to or directly as a part of Project Phoenix.

A remaining outstanding question is whether the city has the legal authority to utilize a portion of the $12 million in recovered redevelopment money on those two amenities, which were not explicitly identified as a part of Project Phoenix when it was proposed more than six years ago.

The entirety of the project appeared to be derailed through action by the state legislature and the governor five years ago; but an intrepid effort by the City of Twentynine Palms resulted, after what seemed an interminable delay, in the city being given go-ahead to proceed with the project.  More than a half decade after the project was first drawn up and approved, public sentiment seems to have shifted against certain elements of the plan as envisioned, and a small, but vocal, cross section of the community wants the project to be reformulated without the performing theater as part of its community center. Those residents are less than keen on a recently-floated proposal to include a city library at the center as well.

Project Phoenix was originally conceived as an undertaking by the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency aimed at constructing a community center, a 250-seat theater, classrooms, a civic plaza, a park, a paseo, residential units, a wastewater treatment plant, and improvements to the downtown fire station. Project Phoenix was to utilize redevelopment funding.

Redevelopment agencies were adjuncts to local governments empowered to issue bonds, which would be sold to investors. The proceeds from those bond sales would then be used to eradicate blight and/or create infrastructure that would encourage development. The improvements in the property contained within a redevelopment project area would, theoretically, result in an increase in property values and the increase in property tax derived from the properties in the redevelopment project area, referred to as tax increment, would then be routed to repay the bondholders.

In 2011, however, when the legislature passed AB X1 26 and AB X1 27, which shuttered more than 400 municipal and county redevelopment agencies up and down the state. Twentynine Palms boldly sought to push ahead with the project, based upon Twentynine Palms City Attorney A. Patrick Muñoz’s assertion that the project had been initiated prior to AB XI 26 and AB XI 27 going into effect. According to Muñoz, the state law ending redevelopment function was trumped by federal securities regulations, meaning the money the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency bonded for in 2011 could be utilized only for the purpose that bondholders were told the money would be applied toward.

Muñoz asserted in filings with the Sacramento Superior Court that the non-taxable bonds issued in 2011 created specific obligations between the city, as the issuer, and the bond purchasers, and as such are enforceable obligations and any use of the money for a purpose other than what the city had specified in marketing the bonds to the bond buyers would constitute fraud. The city then used the locally composed bond oversight board that was formed by the state legislation to recommit the bond money to the Phoenix project.  When the state Department of Finance used its authority to disallow the recommitment, the city filed legal action in Sacramento Superior Court, the venue where the legislation required any litigation pertaining to cities’ use of redevelopment money had to be filed. The case was heard by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny.

Kenny proved amenable to the city’s assertions and after the California Department of Finance lost a succession of appeals and challenges, the state relented in May of 2015, announcing it was throwing in the towel on opposing the cities’ moves to preserve their last remaining redevelopment agency projects.

Twentynine Palms has since move ahead with attempting to bring Project Phoenix to fruition. A number of city residents are now second guessing the direction the city wants to take with Project Phoenix, in particular the performing arts center/theater and the library. That library was not on the original wish list for the project, meaning it will need to be funded by some other means than the available Project Phoenix money.

Some have expressed the view that the city does not need cultural amenities such as a library or theater. They say such elements and the vision they represent for Twentynine Palms are being foisted on the community by a group of elitists with an artistic and cultural bent that is out of step with the majority of the community. They want the money applied to public safety enhancements and improvements to the city’s core.

A difficulty is, however, that the same principle that preserved the redevelopment money for the city is also at play in how the money is to be applied.

Muñoz’s assertion was that the money the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency bonded for in 2011 could be utilized only for the purpose that bondholders were told the money would be applied toward. Contained in the bond documents was that Project Phoenix was to entail the community center,  theater, classrooms, civic plaza,  park,  paseo, residential units, a wastewater treatment plant, and fire station improvements.  Those elements must be incorporated into the project under the theory Muñoz propounded in saving the project money from confiscation by the state.

Last month, Matt McCleary, who has a contract with the city for Project Phoenix planning, took a survey of local residents at a September 8 community meeting. He has sent a report to the city council summarizing that input. City staff, primarily city manager Frank Luckino, has also weighed in on how Project Phoenix should be fleshed out when it at last rises from the ashes. That consensus is that the city should construct a community center that qualifies as a mixed use facility with a library, museum, visitor center and meeting rooms. The council said it believes the community center should entail at least in part a multipurpose gymnasium or athletic facility, a library, a museum and an outdoor performing or event venue. Further refinement of the community center concept will be attempted at the council’s first meeting in December.

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