If you are a resident of Canyon Country, or drive through the area on occasion, I’m sure you have noticed the hillside, north of Soledad Canyon Road, just west of Camp Plenty, covered with solar panels. The panels were installed in a hodgepodge manner, not only creating an eyesore for the Canyon View Estates residents below, but for residents across the valley as well. They can be seen from the backyards of homes in Shangri-La, in North Oaks, as well as from Soledad Canyon Road looking north to the hills.
Installation of these panels started around April 2017, with Kerry Seidenglanz, Managing Partner of Canyon View Estates being quoted in the Signal as saying, “the project is being done with the resident’s best interest in mind.” Well, there are a fair number of Canyon View Estates residents, and a whole bunch of Canyon Country residents who do not agree; in fact, they believe the project is an eyesore and want the panels removed.
After over a year of waiting, the City of Santa Clarita published a news brief on September 12, 2018, indicating the city had “filed a formal complaint with the Los Angeles County Superior Court, regarding solar panels installed at Canyon View Mobile Home Estates.” The complaint asks the court for “preliminary and permanent injunction and declaratory relief to abate a public nuisance,” related to the solar panels. The City alleges the solar panels were installed without proper permits, in violation of the Santa Clarita Municipal Code, and in violation of Canyon View Mobile Home Estates’ conditional use permit, which states that 50% of the park needs to be maintained as open space.” On January 27, 2019 the Signal reported the trial court date to be set at October 21st.
Currently, the two sides are doing their respective due diligence, and according to this past Friday’s Signal, the plaintiffs are requesting the ability to depose City Manager Ken Striplin. This centers around the comment made by our City Manager to the City Council, City staff, and to the defendants in 2017 “regarding the lack of authority by the city to issue solar panel permits.” On October 10, 2017, Striplin told the City Council, “The city of Santa Clarita does not have local control or permitting authority over solar panels in mobile home parks.”
On the City side, their attorneys are taking the position, “the City Manager is an ‘apex-level’ employee and therefore lacks sufficient information to offer specific responsive testimony relative to the burden of producing a City Manager for deposition.” So, what is an apex level employee and how does this justify not deposing our City Manager? According to the American Bar Association, “To avail itself of the apex-deposition doctrine, the party opposing the deposition (the City) generally must show that (1) the witness (our City Manager) lacks unique, first-hand knowledge of the facts at issue and (2) other, less intrusive means of discovery have not been exhausted.”
Unbelievable. Last week, our Mayor was quoted, in reference to explaining expenditure defined in the City’s mid-year budget adjustment saying, “I’m assuming that all this was looked at before the decision was made to go ahead and use the money.” She went on to indicate, “When we receive information that an action is OK to take, we go by what our staff puts forth.” Now this week, our city’s “Legal Eagles” are taking the position that our City Manager lacks unique, first-hand knowledge of the facts on the solar panel issue? When I asked who is minding the store, sadly it appears the answer is, “all those lower paid employees residing in City Hall cubicles.”
But looking back on what transpired, there was a time when the City’s position was, “the city of Santa Clarita does not have local control or permitting authority over solar panels in mobile home parks.” Councilmember Kellar sent a letter to State Assembly Member Dante Acosta, dated July 10, 2017, lamenting over, “The current (mobile home park solar permitting) process not providing an opportunity for any local input to allow consideration of unique local circumstances.” He later spoke about the project, during the September 22, 2017 City Council Meeting, when Council Member Kellar reflected on who approved the solar panel project, by saying emphatically, “We did not do it. The City did not know one thing about it.” Yet, by then it was after June 28th, and construction had started.
KHTS published an article, by Perry Smith, alerting the public. The article told of officials at the State Housing and Community Development (HCD) having been contacted and indicated there was no appeal mechanism in their permitting process. Ms. Evan Gerberding, Deputy Director of Communications and Tribal Liaison, was quoted as saying, “HCD officials consider local city and county ordinances that would be applicable. Based on HCD’s consideration of local zoning and laws, the project wouldn’t have been stopped.” She went on to say, “There was no basis for us to say no, or deny that permit. HCD evaluates the safety of the project as well as any regulations the city or county may have in place, before issuing a permit.” Lastly, the article told of, Mr. John Caprarelli, Santa Clarita Building Official, indicating, “A City inspector was on site recently to verify the project did have the necessary permits filed with HCD.” So much for the allegation, the city was unaware of the project until it was built.
I was curious and wanted to read it for myself, so I went to the HCD website to better understand their permitting process. My search led me to HCD’s “Mobile Home and Special Occupancy Plan Review Booklet.” Getting to page two, I found a checklist titled “Documentation Standards for Permits.” Item 1, asked for “approval and signature from the ‘local planning department’ on the Mobile Home and Recreational Vehicle Park Government Agency Approval form or equivalent document.” Wondering which city employee signed off on this permit, I raised the issue at the September 12th City Council Meeting. Mr. Striplin indicated the City did not approve the project. In addition, the City was not aware of the HCD booklet or requirements. Councilmember Marsha Mclean asked staff to look into the matter.
Several months later, Mr. Tom Cole showed me a copy of the HCD Canyon View Estates Permit and the section related to local approval was blank. The next question asked was if the solar panels were installed within the boundaries of the Mobile Home Park entitlement. It took almost a year for Mr. Cole to answer the question, when he revealed locating the Canyon View Estates County Permit, which required 50 percent of the property to remain as “open space,” which today is clearly not the case.
The story of Canyon View Estates and the owner’s solar panels is not even close to resolution, and today we sit waiting on lawyer time, even though every day we get to look at the monstrosity on the mountain. In court, the City has alleged the solar panels were installed without proper permits and is asking for the solar panels to be removed, while the property owners want to leave the panels in place in order to maintain their investment.
Yet the public needs to stay alert and watch carefully to be aware of how this issue plays out. Just as important as removing the panels are to our Canyon Country residents, corrective action to avoid the missteps which have occurred must be put in place by Santa Clarita staff and the City Council. Every agency which had a part in this permitting process failed to carry out their responsibilities in some way. Individuals communicating their agencies positions, attempted to protect themselves and their agency by shooting from the hip, and as the story unfolded, were proven wrong.
I can only hope, all concerned, take this as a learning experience, and fix what is broken.