Monday, March 17, 2008

Here is why you should not believe the scare tactics of the Liberty Quarry foes

The dust levels that will be generated by Liberty Quarry will be as low as this operation. Possibly lower because of newer equipment with enclosed conveyor belts. It's all about WATER and its application in the process of both blasting and moving material.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Stephenson Is The Temecula Council's Largest Donor


A southwestern Riverside County developer has been a major donor and fundraiser for the election campaigns of all five Temecula City Council members, a review of public records has found.Daniel L. Stephenson and his companies have contributed more than $48,000 to the current council representatives since the beginning of 2004 -- nearly three times as much as the second-most-generous donor, according to a computer analysis of all campaign donations and expenditures the council members reported between Jan. 1, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2007, on public disclosure forms.During the same period, Stephenson also helped the candidates raise campaign cash by organizing fundraising events. In exchange for a contribution, supporters could board a bus for a trip to a professional sports event. One donor, for example, said he made $500 donations to two candidates and joined them and about 30 other people on a bus trip to Los Angeles for a Kings hockey game.The city has no limits on campaign contributions, and Stephenson's giving does not violate any laws or regulations. However, some experts question the wisdom of having one person have such a large financial impact on the city's elected representatives.Three of the five council members also have other financial ties to Stephenson: Councilman Jeff Comerchero works for him; Mayor Michael Naggar's consulting company works for Stephenson on some projects; and Councilman Chuck Washington has invested in a Stephenson development north of Temecula.Developers and real estate professionals often are the biggest city and county campaign supporters because of their interest in land-use decisions, said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for The Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C-based nonpartisan, nonprofit research group that tracks money in politics and its effect on policy. Large contributions from one business interest should raise questions, he said."If the money comes from more diverse sources, there is less potential for favors," Ritsch said.All five council members and Stephenson declined to be interviewed by phone or in person for this article. They instructed reporters to submit questions in writing. Council members Comerchero, Ron Roberts and Maryann Edwards answered several of the newspaper's questions in e-mailed responses. Naggar and Washington did not answer specific questions, instead referring reporters to the campaign documents that prompted the questions.Stephenson said through a receptionist that he was on vacation and unavailable. He did not answer questions e-mailed to him. In a brief e-mail, he praised the council members and said he did not have access to information needed to answer the questions."I couldn't be more pleased to see how Temecula has flourished," Stephenson wrote. "I admire those who have been responsible for that and I support them in continuing their efforts."Council members and City Manager Shawn Nelson have said the council ties to Stephenson are a nonissue because the developer has no projects pending in the city.Stephenson has been involved in real estate in Riverside County since the late 1960s. He has formed dozens of companies that put together development teams, secures land-use approvals and often sells properties to builders. Under the umbrella name The Rancon Group, Stephenson has spun off other companies to handle real estate sales, financing and other development-related business. In December 2006, he declared in a court document that he and his trust had a net worth of more than $217 million.On the BusComerchero wrote in an e-mail that Stephenson over the years has helped with many fundraisers."The format is usually the same...," Comerchero wrote. "He buys about 40 tickets to a game and arranges for a bus to transport people. People are invited to go and they make a contribution."Most Stephenson fundraisers involved treating donors to charter-bus outings to pro-sports events, including Lakers basketball and Kings games. The council members benefiting from the fundraiser went along, giving donors time to socialize with them."It would have been a bus load full of people talking about their families, sports, their jobs, who knows what," Comerchero wrote.The candidates' campaign committees pay back the cost of the bus, tickets and other expenses that Stephenson would have covered in advance. It's unclear, based on campaign records, how much money the trips generated for the candidates.Stephenson, through Rancon Real Estate, has organized fundraisers for other city and county candidates, including Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster.Buster said the event was a joint fundraiser for himself, Naggar and county Supervisor Jeff Stone that involved a charter bus trip to Staples Center in Los Angeles for a Lakers game in March of last year.Stephenson is not the only large donor, Buster said.Campaign-finance records confirm that several development-related companies give substantial sums to local candidates, either through a few large donations or numerous smaller ones.Among the larger single donations to a city candidate, records show that The Garrett Group, a Temecula-based developer, donated $8,000 to Comerchero in March 2005. And a company called Highland Fairview Properties, based in Florida, gave $10,000 to Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley's campaign in 2006 and again in 2007, according to his campaign filings.Although Stephenson and his companies occasionally gave a large donation, most contributions were $1,000 or less. But they were numerous: For example, Stone's campaign in 2004 received 20 separate contributions ranging from $10,500 to $119, for a total of $26,000.From 2004 through 2007, Stephenson companies donated $58,246 to Stone's election committee. Stone's district includes Temecula, Murrieta and Hemet. In the same period, Stephenson entities gave a little more than $33,000 each to Buster and Ashley.Buster said he wants Riverside County to impose limits on how much individual donors can give to one candidate for county office. He proposed doing so in 2004 but could not get support from other supervisors, he said in a telephone interview."The public wonders, and rightfully so, what is going on," Buster said. "There is a perception of undue influence, even if there is nothing illegal about it. ..."He (Stephenson) is playing by the current rules, and we are playing by the rules, but the rules need some strengthening," he said.As many as 50 California cities limit campaign donations, said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan political research organization.Los Angeles City Council candidates, for example, cannot accept more than $500 from any one donor per election. Santa Monica's cap is $250. Such limits can be imposed by city councils or by the voters through ballot initiatives, Stern said.None of the Temecula council members responded to a question about whether they would favor limiting campaign donations.Better Than a BanquetTemecula businessman Fred Grimes, who donated $500 to Edwards in 2006, said Stephenson-sponsored pro-sports outings have been common in Temecula council campaigns. "There is nothing seedy about it," Grimes said. "It's just a way to get people to make donations. ... It's a lot easier to get people to the game than the banquet room at The Sizzler."Grimes, who is with Grubb & Ellis/WestMar commercial real estate company, said he supports Edwards because she has worked hard to improve Temecula."She is the kind of dedicated public servant the city needs," he said.Developer Al Rattan, a City Council critic who owns land in the Old Town district of Temecula, said campaign donations can secure access to decision-makers.Rattan said that Rancon Real Estate brokered his land purchases in recent years and that Rancon officials, including Stephenson, suggested that he make campaign donations and socialize with the candidates.After paying $500 each to the campaigns of Edwards and Washington, Rattan said, he and about 30 other people met at Rancon's Murrieta office to board a bus to a Kings hockey game in Los Angeles.The party sat in luxury box seats, where they had drinks and catered food, Rattan said. Stephenson arrived later and socialized with council members and donors, he said.Rattan said he had a chance to talk with Comerchero and Edwards about his Old Town plans on the bus. The project remains stalled, Rattan said, because he did not get the redevelopment subsidies he considered necessary to proceed.Last year, Rattan said during a City Council meeting that he believes the financial ties linking Comerchero and Naggar to Stephenson are a potential conflict of interest. Council members have said they consult the city attorney to avoid such conflicts.Nelson, the Temecula city manager, sent The Press-Enterprise an unsolicited e-mail pointing out that Stephenson has no pending business within the city.Rancon, however, is planning housing and three wineries next to Temecula's eastern city limit, off Butterfield Stage Road. The project is in Riverside County jurisdiction.Several land-use experts said cities routinely try to influence development occurring at their doorsteps, and county officials listen because cities are affected by traffic and other issues. Such city involvement "is unequivocally a good planning practice," Daniel P. Selmi, a land-use expert and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.Comerchero said in an e-mail that he would have to abstain because of his work for Rancon.Roberts said by e-mail that he has a conflict of interest that would prevent him from taking a position on the project. He works for Stone, the county supervisor who represents the district in which the project area is located.Edwards said in an e-mail that she hasn't heard of the project.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is This Part of The Conflict of Interest?

Ultimate interchange or ultimate deal?

Courtesy of the Valley News

Friday, February 8th, 2008. Issue 06, Volume 12.

A storied 35-acre tract at Temecula’s south side is drawing new scrutiny as city officials plan the start of a $30.6 million project that is intended to ease traffic congestion at a crucial city bottleneck.
City public works officials say they are finishing environmental reports and charting the start of construction in about a year on the so-called “ultimate interchange” at Interstate 15 and Highway 79 South, which is also known as Temecula Parkway.
At the same time, members of a newly-formed citizens’ watchdog group are dissecting the city’s $7.1 million purchase of the tract nearly four years ago from a land partnership that has close ties to key city leaders.
“I think it’s extremely disturbing,” Al Rattan, a founder of the Rescue Temecula watchdog group, said in a recent interview. “The problem is people were voting when they shouldn’t have.”
Rattan questions some City Council members’ ties to two of the landowners and doubts whether that entire 35 acres should have been purchased for the improvement project. He contends that the city should have used the eminent domain process, rather than closed door negotiations, to make a deal.
Rattan says conflict of interest concerns should have prevented Mayor Mike Naggar from participating in a May 2004 closed session review of city plans to purchase the tract from the Margarita Canyon LLC partnership.
Rattan says Councilman Ron Roberts should have abstained from that closed session review and a later public vote because a landowner of the tract helped found a bank in which Roberts’ wife owned stock.
Naggar, who is now mayor, rejected Rattan’s assertions and said he acted properly throughout the land purchase.
“I always seek the advice of the city attorney and he is intimately aware of all my financial interests,” Naggar said in an e-mailed response to questions raised in recent months. “As I said, I jealously guard my integrity.”
Councilman Roberts did not respond to a reporter’s e-mail seeking comment on the concerns raised by Rattan.
Naggar, who was elected to the council in November 1999, began work as a development services consultant by early 2003. His clients and associates include Daniel L. Stephenson, who formed the Rancon Group of companies and was one of three members of the Margarita Canyon LLC land partnership.
Naggar’s financial disclosure forms also show that he has owned Mission Oaks National Bank stock since 2002. Another partner in the land deal, Fred D. Grimes, helped found the bank and he remains a member of its governing board.
Roberts was elected to the council in November 1992. A retired California Highway Patrol sergeant, Roberts now works as an aide to Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, a former Temecula councilman. Roberts has said the Mission Oaks stock listed for years on his city financial disclosure forms belongs to his wife.
Councilman Jeff Comerchero also shared business ties with Stephenson at the time of the land deal, but he did not participate in the closed session discussion and he abstained from voting on the purchase, city records show.
Stephenson hired Comerchero as a development consultant in February 2003. A year later, Comerchero was named president and chief executive of the Rancon Group of development companies.
Tract’s rich past revealed
The out-of-the-way land tract hugs the west side of I-15 at the southern end of Old Town Front Street.
The tract’s west side marks the confluence of creeks that together form the 27-mile-long Santa Margarita River, which descends through a rugged granite canyon on its way to Camp Pendleton and the ocean.
A LuiseƱo Indian village that gave Temecula its name is believed to have once covered much of the tract’s ridges and knolls.
A cultural resources survey prepared for the city identified at least one archaeological site on the property and the possible remnants of a railroad line that once connected San Diego and Temecula.
The railroad line, which passed through the river gorge before entering Old Town, was completed in 1882. The line was later abandoned when the rails washed out when flooding soured the canyon walls.
The report, which was submitted to the city in December 2004, recommended that further study be done of the area. It recommend that no development occur on the southernmost segment of the property and steps be taken if work were to intrude into the railroad bed and possible bridge footings.
Yet as the site’s environmental and archaeological importance has grown, so has vehicle congestion on Temecula’s south side.
Traffic has continued to mushroom as the fast-growing commercial corridor of Hwy 79 has added a Wal-Mart and numerous strip malls and houses continue to sprout in subdivisions that flank both sides of the busy highway.
Periodic expansions of the Pechanga Indian casino have also helped to clog streets, intersections and freeway ramps.
In 2001, the city counted about 29,500 vehicles a day using the state highway just east of the interchange. The daily count tipped 47,300 vehicles a day in 2002 and reached nearly 66,900 last year, according to city records.
As congestion has intensified around the clotted interchange, so has the difficulty exiting or entering the freeway on the existing ramps.
Especially during peak travel times or a casino special event, drivers heading south on I-15 often must join a long queue of vehicles waiting to exit.
It can also be difficult for northbound drivers to merge onto the freeway during peak travel times.
City’s interest stirs
Ownership of the rectangular property can be traced to January 1996, which is when KI/FKLA Rancho Realty LLC sold the site to Margarita Canyon LLC for about $2.4 million, according to a grant deed recorded by Riverside County.
An ARCO gas station and convenience store was subsequently built at the north end of the site, but the rest of the land remains undeveloped.
The city’s interest in the site surfaced publicly in May 2004. It was then, according to city records, that the council first met behind closed doors to discuss property negotiations with landowner Fred Grimes.
No council action was reported from that closed meeting, according to city records. Councilman Comerchero did not participate in the session due to “economic interest” in the issue, city records show. Naggar participated in that review, records indicate.
Naggar said the potential purchase came before the council because the city did not want to face development occurring on land it needed for future road or interchange improvements.
Such a quandary occurred years ago when Temecula and Murrieta were contemplating buying land near Winchester and Murrieta Hot Springs roads for a link to a new interchange being planned on I-15.
Naggar said nothing surfaced at the time of the May 2004 closed session that would prevent him from considering what he termed an “informational item” on future infrastructure needs.
“Nonetheless, looking back there was nothing in my personal or professional life that would have precluded me from being in that meeting,” Naggar said in his e-mailed statement.
An internal memo prepared about that time listed six “possible benefits” that the city would reap by closing the land deal. The first benefit on the list noted: “Developers/investors receive early return.”
The memo noted that other purchase benefits would include the city taking control over future development of the site and its possible future use as a park-and-ride lot.
The three disadvantages cited in the memo, which was recently released by the city, included the possible loss of future development revenues and the need to use city funds as “up front money” to buy the land.
A July 2004 appraisal report done by a city consultant played a key role in establishing the tract’s value. The appraiser used two methods, including comparing land values of several local and regional sites, to estimate the value of the Margarita Canyon LLC land at $7.105 million.
Other Temecula sites examined in the report included a 22.7-acre parcel along I-15 where an auto mall expansion is under way, a 5.2-acre parcel at Ynez Road and Overland Drive where a restaurant and strip mall now stands and a 4.7-acre parcel along Jefferson Avenue that remains undeveloped.
The appraisal report states that more than half of the Margarita Canyon site cannot be developed because the terrain is uneven or the slopes of Murrieta and Temecula creeks encroach upon useable land.
Naggar said he did not take part in an August 2004 closed session on the potential land deal because the appraisal report had identified Stephenson as one of the Margarita Canyon LLC partners.
“I did not participate in that meeting on the advice of counsel due to a potential conflict of interest in that it was discovered that one of the property owners was Dan Stephenson, with whom I had entered into or was contemplating entering into a business relationship with,” Naggar said in his recent statement.
Purchase raises possibilities
The council voted to purchase the land nearly three months after the appraisal report was completed. In a 3-0 vote in open session, the council approved a staff recommendation to pay $7.1 million for the land.
Comerchero and Naggar abstained from voting on the land purchase. Councilmen Roberts, Washington and Stone voted ‘yes.’
Comerchero heads the land development division of the Rancon Group, which was founded by Stephenson. A longtime friend of Stephenson, Washington at some point also established business ties with him as well, according to city financial records made public in March 2007.
Newspaper stories at the time of the land deal quoted the Margarita Canyon owners as saying the sale would scuttle plans being cemented to build a restaurant and a four-story hotel on the site.
Marketing materials printed prior to the city’s purchase identified several anticipated and potential uses for the site. The materials published by the Rancon Group noted that the site had received its development approvals and an ARCO gas station and convenience story had been built there.
“A Jack-in-the-Box is now under construction. The project, when complete, will have an additional 109,000 square feet of retail development,” the marketing blurb concluded.
But that rosy outlook was not reflected in the appraisal report prepared for the city prior to the land purchase. The report said the Jack-in-the-Box deal had fizzled because future freeway improvements might affect it.
The report also noted “no written documentation was provided” by the Margarita partners that indicated any development interest by a hotel chain or other potential builders.
At the time of the land deal, city public works officials said in newspaper stories that the future work to reconfigure the freeway interchange and ramps would cost about $15 million.
Planning proceeds amid scrutiny
The media coverage waned following the land deal and planning has progressed on the interchange improvements.
Part of the site has been used as an impromptu park-and-ride lot by commuters who gather before trekking in groups to jobs in San Diego or other cities throughout Southern California.
Enough funds have been earmarked to build the interchange improvements, Bill Hughes, Temecula’s public works director, said in a recent e-mail interview.
More than half the $30.6 million construction cost – about $17 million – would come from gaming funds the city receives as a result of the regional traffic impacts caused by the Pechanga casino.
Another $10 million would come from a countywide development fee that is earmarked for future road and freeway projects, Hughes said.
Construction plans are being finalized for the project and work is expected to start in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Construction will take several years and the completion timetable calls for the new ramps to begin functioning sometime in 2012, Hughes said.
He said the construction of the new freeway ramps and other improvements will require about one-third of the 35-acre Margarita Canyon site. Any remaining flat land that is not affected by environmental or archaeological restraints might be used as a parking lot, he said.
Hughes said the city might not need any additional land outside the Margarita Canyon purchase to build the future improvements. If additional pieces are needed, they would likely just be small slivers on the periphery of the ramps project, he said.