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Irvine residents living near the Great Park are still furious about the special taxes they pay to fund the park stemming from agreements between the city and a developer.
While the City Council members couldn’t take any concrete action on the park’s financing at their Tuesday meeting, they did change the name.
The change will drop “Orange County,” from the park’s name at a cost of $360,000 to taxpayers, which public commenters almost unanimously opposed, saying it was unnecessary.
Despite those complaints, the council voted 4-1 to approve the project, with Councilman Larry Agran serving as the sole no vote.
“We’re doing it because our city deserves to be known not only nationally but throughout the world,” said Mayor Farrah Khan, calling the complaints “growing pains.”
But most residents at Tuesday’s meeting were more focused on the city’s report about the Great Park’s funding, a long requested discussion from both the council and members of the public.
“The city continues to allow projects to be approved without consideration of self sufficiency,” said Nissreen Qamhiyah, a Great Park homeowner at Tuesday’s meeting. “The only plans to pay are from the special taxes … a special tax which residents were unaware would continue in perpetuity.”
A Voice of OC investigation last year found homeowners surrounding the Great Park were being charged millions every year in special Mello-Roos taxes to fund construction of the park with little say on where their money goes.
The city council, along with their development partner FivePoint Holdings, choose where those tax dollars can be spent — an agreement that can only be changed if both parties concur.
As the park’s population has grown, residents have repeatedly questioned the city’s handling of the park, forming action groups that recently were one of the driving forces behind moving a proposed veterans cemetery out of the park.
Those questions led to the longest Great Park discussion in over a year, with the most detailed city staff report on the park’s financing since the plan was approved in 2013.
The item was put on the agenda by council members Tammy Kim and Mike Carroll, asking for a review of how the special taxes operate and what it meant for residents.
At the start of the meeting, city staff laid out a presentation reviewing all the ways residents could communicate their ideas for the park’s development that largely praised the city’s transparency.
“I also don’t want this to be onerous. We’ve got folks who talk about public participation and as I’ve mentioned before, I think public participation is having conversations in your driveway and hearing that input,” said Councilman Anthony Kuo.
Great Park residents disagreed with their assessment.
“I’ve lived there since 2017 and follow social media quite a bit and I never hear about meetings going on,” said one commenter from the Park.
“Regarding formal or informal engagement, our voice is not being heard to a satisfactory level,” another commenter said. “From where I sit, the representation is going to be having a seat at the table.”
While a majority of the city council said they would support a Great Park resident advisory committee during the last election, the proposed panel has never materialized.
The council ultimately took no action on expanding Great Park resident’s involvement, but multiple council members indicated they wanted a more in-depth discussion at a later meeting.
City attorney Jeff Melching also gave a presentation breaking down how residents’ special Mello-Roos taxes work and how that structure was set up.
Great Park residents pay a special property tax every year that goes towards paying for the park’s development.
To start that development, the city placed multiple bonds on the neighborhoods, letting them get the money for construction up front while homeowners pay off the bond plus interest over the next 40 years.
After that, the special taxes largely disappear, but a portion remains permanently to pay for the park’s maintenance that will bring in roughly $9.5 million annually according to Melching.
Great Park homeowners are on the hook for over $600 million, an amount that’s only expected to rise as the park continues to grow.
While the tax amount can’t change until after the city repays all of the bonds, Melching made it clear the city can choose to change where the city is allowed to spend the money if they get FivePoint onboard.
“The tax amount is set, it doesn’t change. But where that tax ends up can change,” Melching said.
Should the city choose to go that route, it would push more tax dollars to the discretionary pot that lets the developer and the city spend the money as they see fit in the Park, with two-thirds of the final cash going to FivePoint and the remaining money going to the city.
The council also asked questions about how homeowners were informed their money would be going toward the Great Park, an issue multiple homeowners took issue with in public comments.
“Most of the time the (special taxes) were not explained well on the contract,” said Eugenie Zheng, a real estate agent and Great Park homeowner. “I’ve read over a lot of the contracts … our contract was misleading.”
Melching said while he had not yet reviewed the disclosures given to homeowners, he had been told disclosures were given to all residents prior to their moving in.
Ultimately, the council took no action on either issue, citing the report’s status as receive and file stopping them from taking any action. Kim and Carroll said they would return with an ordinance mandating the disclosures of the special tax be clearly stated in the future.
While the council did not set a firm date on their next discussion, the council’s next meeting on the Great Park is scheduled for September 28.