By Deb Murphy
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors broke from tradition at Tuesday’s meeting with a discussion of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s commercial leases.
The Board opted to draft a letter to the department’s Board of Commissioners asking for lease transfers, reasonable evaluations if the City opts to sell the land, water availability and a contact name for lease holders to call for accurate information.
Rumblings started with the City of Bishop’s workshop in January. Members of the business community were concerned with what appeared to be changes to the department’s lease policies.
Then, at LADWP’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting last month, a vote was taken on ranch leases but a commercial lease decision was postponed at the request of Inyo’s Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio. The sticking point was the 80-year tradition of a lessee’s ability to sell his business and transfer the lease.
The Commissioners’ agenda package replaced that policy with a family transfer policy and a one-time assignment policy, the latter effectively putting an end to past practices. A letter from the Inyo supervisors to the department’s commissioners expressed the fear that the one-time transfer policy would seriously hurt Inyo, devaluing existing businesses and discouraging capital improvements.
Mike Allen, owner of Allen’s Outdoors in Bishop, told his story during the public comment period. Allen was told 16 years ago when he bought the business the five-year limit was “no big deal,” with lease renewals a near certainty.
When he starting thinking retirement and selling the business, which includes a U-Haul rental, he contacted the Bishop LADWP real estate office and was told he couldn’t sell. Instead he was told to get an appraisal on the improvements and inventory and the department would advertise, seeking competitive bids.
In a phone conversation, Allen said two other commercial lessees considered selling and were told they couldn’t.
Allen described a worst case scenario provided by local LADWP staff. A prospective buyer comes in with a low bid on the business but willing to pay a higher rental rate and the department goes with that bid. “I think he (the staffer) was putting his personal twist on this,” Allen said.
“We’re reaching out to lessees,” said Amanda Parsons, LADWP’s public information officer, in a phone interview. “We’ll hear their concerns and input and do the best we can” with the leases.
LADWP’s Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta will make a presentation at Monday’s Bishop City Council meeting and at next Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors. The department will also hold a meeting with lessees at the Tri-County Fairgrounds on November 22.
The Supervisors’ primary concern was a stable, viable business community which would require a “reasonable, flexible lease policy” for area businesses. “DWP doesn’t seem to recognize there is a business community here,” said Supervisor Rick Pucci. “It’s insane. Nobody seems to know who to talk to regarding business leases,” he said adding that if the department opts to sell the leased land, the property valuations have to be reasonable.
Supervisors Mark Tillemans and Jeff Griffiths expressed concern the one-time transfer and competitive bid policies would lead to more abandoned, dilapidated commercial buildings in Owens Valley communities.
Supervisor Matt Kingsley suggested the County’s letter be addressed to the department’s Board of Commissioners, cc’ing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Pucci agreed. “When we send letters, they get lost in LA,” he said.