City Stops Volleying in Tennis Court Dispute

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Repairs of the high school's tennis courts remain in a stalemate.
Repairs of the high school’s tennis courts remain in a stalemate.

 

Emphasizing that the benefits do not justify the expense, the Laguna Beach City Council benched a request to pay for the majority of a $1.8-million upgrade to the high school tennis courts Tuesday. Instead, council members unanimously voted to try a new approach, negotiate in person.

The city and the Laguna Beach Unified School District share a 70-30 split respectively on repair and maintenance costs of the six courts under a joint-use agreement. That agreement may soon change.

Mayor Bob Whalen and council member Robert Zur Schmiede were unanimously appointed to iron out differences over court repair costs with district officials. Negotiations about payment have been volleyed back and forth for years, primarily through emails and letters, Zur Schmiede said at the meeting. If the district insists on installing the more expensive upgrades, council members curtly suggested that Whalen and Zur Schmiede ask the district to pay the higher percentage rather than the city.

The school district requested that the city contribute 70 percent or $1.26 million to equip the district-owned courts with stabilizing and long-lasting post-tension slabs, an increase for the city of $825,000 over a previous agreement, according to a report to the council by Ben Siegel, the city’s director of community services. The district’s contribution would be $540,000.

The council endorsed the district’s plan a year ago and the city agreed to pay 70 percent of $620,000 to upgrade the surface of the courts. The city’s portion amounted to $435,000, Siegel said, before costs escalated due to unanticipated expenses.

The upgrade to post-tension courts catapults the project into a “new construction” category, which requires the added costs of reconfigured access for the disabled and review by a state architect. Refurbishing, the report states, avoids both expenses and brings the courts up to the playable standards of the 12 city-owned tennis courts.

“Every other district around us plays on courts that are post-tension,” said school board president Ketta Brown in an interview Wednesday. “That’s just the standard now. As a district, we’re trying to keep up with the times and keep up with technology and keep up the best we can.”

Council member Steve Dicterow initiated the turn-about in the council’s position by suggesting face-to-face talks with school district officials. “We’ve been put in a position where we’re talking about it in isolation,” said Dicterow. “I’m not sure this process is the right way to go.” Zur Schmiede suggested a meeting with district officials before the city makes its final decision on Jan. 20. The meeting will take place next week, he said Wednesday.

Siegel’s staff report questioned the necessity of post-tension courts for the community’s needs. The compression-style post-tension slabs can be adjusted if soil settles or shifts or during extreme temperature changes so that the concrete does not crack or buckle. The city estimated the cost of resurfacing the six high school courts at $300,000.

Three court-resurfacing contractors were consulted by the city and none found evidence of the type of soil or geological conditions under the high school courts that require post-tension construction, the report says. “In fact, an August 2013 district report indicates that refurbishment of the courts with existing materials would be both adequate and cost effective,” the report stated.

Council members Toni Iseman and Kelly Boyd adamantly opposed paying more with Iseman suggesting the flip in percentages.

“We’re representing a lot of people in this community and I just feel it was an extortion,” she said, comparing the scenario to past upgrades to the high school theater where costs were also shared. “And it’s unhealthy because we have an unsafe situation. I don’t want a 70-30 split coming back here.”

She said the high school courts are dangerous and pushed for immediate resurfacing while negotiating post-tension courts later. “If they want post-tension, we have three years to negotiate,” she said, referring to the city’s routine resurfacing schedule. Boyd called the increasingly high cost to the city “ridiculous.”

The 70-30 cost split is based on the community’s higher use of the courts, Dean West, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, said Wednesday. “It would be up to the board to change that split,” he said.

Brown welcomes the in-person discussion, and maintained that the community is demanding the upgrade. “We’ve been hammered by people who live in Laguna Beach,” she said. “The courts are used more by the public than by our students. It’s not like our kids are saying we won’t play on your piece-of-crap courts.”

Resident and parent Paul Hamilton echoed Brown’s position at Tuesday’s meeting. “You go to any other school in Orange County and they have beautiful courts that have proper drainage, that are flat and the community’s proud of them,” Hamilton said. “And you come to our courts here and the balls are rolling out on the street underneath the fence, the fence is falling down, it’s rusty. It’s a complete embarrassment.”

The council is scheduled to make its final decision Jan. 20.

Last year, the city agreed to a district proposed plan to install post-tension slabs at a total cost of $620,000 even though the cost was higher than a previously agreed-upon expenditure.

It’s not that the city doesn’t think the courts need to be repaired, said Siegel. The high school courts fell off a regular maintenance schedule after they were resurfaced in 2008 and post-tension upgrades were first discussed, he reported. Cracks, poor drainage, crumbling retaining walls, torn and outdated fencing and substandard lighting all need attention, he said, and the city should provide its 70 percent share. The upgrade also includes repairing a retaining wall for $440,000, for which the city is willing to pay its share, he said.

Standard renovation and repairs are expected to take two months, starting this summer, Seigel said, while installing post-tension courts would take four months.

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