Poor Little Rich City
No funds to fix Flanders, say Carmel officials.
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Once again Flanders is a battlefield, though no poppies grow at this 81-year-old historic mansion in Carmel.
In September, Carmel’s City Council voted unanimously to sell the unkempt seven-bedroom estate as a single-family residence. Last month, local historians, led by Melanie Billig and the Flanders Foundation, filed a lawsuit to stop the sale.
According to Billig, the sale conflicts with the City’s general plan and the coastal land-use plan. Plus, she asserts that the City violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not considering alternatives to selling the property.
But Carmel officials say it comes down to money.
“We disagree with the primary theses of the complaint,” says Councilmember Gerard Rose. “It alleges that the City violated its own standards to let the mansion deteriorate. That’s really the heart of the problem. We don’t have the money to keep it up.”
With repair costs estimated between $700,000 and $1 million, Rose says if the mansion is to be saved, it must be sold as a single-family dwelling.
“I think the city council has made themselves quite clear that Flanders is worth saving, but saving it in a way that makes fiscal sense,” Rose says. “That’s why we’re advocating its preservation as a single family dwelling.
“It was built as a family residence, it was maintained as a family residence and that’s what it should be now. Converting it into a commercial structure would be counterproductive, a waste of money, and, quite frankly, an insult to neighbors.”
Billig, on the other hand, says the City is dangerously shortsighted. “They keep talking about the need for money but they went out and campaigned against a citizen’s initiative [Measure A, a hotel tax] that would have given them $700,000.”
In a city known for its art galleries, high-end boutiques, and rich residents, the idea that Carmel doesn’t have enough money to spruce up Flanders sounds strange to some. According to Bill Rogers, the attorney handling the Flanders case for the City, it depends on what the definition of financial trouble is.
“Are they going bankrupt? Absolutely not,” Rogers says. “But it’s about priorities and making hard choices. There are no funds available to fix up Flanders Mansion. The action the city council has taken is as close to a win-win as possible. It will be restored and protected. Isn’t that what the Flanders Foundation wants?”
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Last January, the Carmel council sent a letter to all city residents.
“If Flanders house is sold (there will be a state-required public vote in the very near future), interest earned on a $4-5 million sale would mean more revenue for the city,” it read.
Billig says this letter proves the City made a promise to residents: to allow voters to decide on the sale of the property.
“And now they’re saying they won’t do it,” Billig says. “They’re afraid they’ll lose the vote.”
Yet, according to Rogers, a public vote would be necessary only if the property is deemed to have been used as a public park. And in his opinion, a referendum has already taken place.
“Essentially, two new members were elected to the city council this year which ran on the platform to sell Flanders,” Rogers says.
Purchased by the city in 1972 for $275,000, the Flanders mansion’s estimated value was $1 million in 1999 and $5.2 million today.
Billig, who served as the mayor of San Luis Obispo in the ‘80s, also charges that the City could have applied for state and federal grants to refurbish the property, or could have accepted an offer from an individual willing to do a life estate.
“A wealthy couple could lease the house, they would have it open so many times a year, and then it would revert back to city property when the couple died,” she explains.
Rogers confirms that such an offer did take place but “there were some real problems with it. I’m not privy to what the problems are.”