John Kunak
President, Castaic Area Town Council

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, October 10, 2004
(Television interview conducted October 5, 2004)

John Kunak     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is John Kunak, president of the Castaic Area Town Council. The interview was conducted Tuesday. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: City councils and town councils have different functions; what does the Castaic Area Town Council do?

Kunak:: Town councils were put into place in the fifth district by Supervisor Antonovich to basically provide advice to his office with regard to community's needs and desires. I'm not really sure how long it's been in existence. It was there when I arrived in Castaic seven years ago. I'm completing my fourth year on it. It has actually, to me, turned out to be quite functional. Although we are an advisory committee, we are elected by the Castaic residents. We have five regions; you vote for someone from your region. There are five members elected every two years; 10 members on the council. We provide the supervisor with input on different things: We have a Land Use Committee, and (the county) listens very carefully to what we have to say about development and different projects, and they come to (our) Land Use Committee before anything goes on, and then to the Town Council before Regional Planning. We'll consider requests for future development, and it has been working very well.

Signal: You're an attorney; what other kinds of people are on the Town Council?

Kunak:: We have a wide range of people from a lot of different areas. We have a film producer, we have people in private industry, we have people working for major corporations. We've got people who have been members of numerous different organizations: people who've been involved with SCOPE; people who, as I, have been involved with things like school board; a lot of the different community groups. The same people get involved and try to have some input on what the community wants.
    And back to your original question, we try to forward that information on to the supervisor, and I've been extremely impressed (with) the kinds of things that have been happening, ranging from street lights that we need — which just occurred this month. That, I was very proud of. Over at the entrance to Pitchess (Detention Center), at The Old Road, there was a three-way stop sign which made zero sense. No one comes in and out of the jail except for maybe the weekend, and with construction and traffic, cars would have to stop at the three-way stop sign and back up. On holiday weekends the Highway Patrol would need officers out there on overtime to wave them through, and we recommended — and they followed the recommendation — and the traffic light just became operational, which is a big difference.

Signal: So if there's a development proposal for Castaic, Supervisor Antonovich will require the developer to appear before the Town Council as a first step?

Kunak:: That's what he recommends, I don't know if legally they need to do (so). As a practical matter, yes, they do do that. We've gotten a very good rapport with the larger developers. Newhall Land has started, as a routine practice, to come before the council just to discuss ideas that they may have, to see what the council's thoughts might be. We try to get input from the community, pass that on, and they may use that and go on to their next step for further development.

Signal: Are there pro-development and pro-environment factions on the Town Council?

Kunak:: There's always going to be those mechanics, which is why I'm glad there are 10 of us. Because you get a large, divergent view of the population as to what they want; who's concerned with what issues. Although I was concerned at first, as I saw the turnover in council members and some different people coming on, and if they had their own particular agendas, it really hasn't turned out to be the case. We seem to be getting the best from all the different areas. So, while you may be concerned with one issue which isn't a major concern with me, it gets incorporated in what we wind up doing, and so far it seems to be working quite well.

Signal: Does the county, as the legal planning body, ever overturn the Town Council's recommendations?

Kunak:: They pretty much can do what it is that they want, obviously; we advise them. It's been my very fortunate experience that they've been following the recommendations to an extremely large degree, even to — one issue comes to mind, where Regional Planning approved a project that we were against, the community was against, and we did get that overturned.
    There was a truck wash proposed directly across the street from the L.A. (County) Regional Sports Complex, which is very heavily used by the residents. A lot of children (are) there at all times of the day. I'm there a lot because I coach sports there. I see 7- and 8-year-olds on scooters and bikes on this ride going home. I'm surprised; I won't let my 9-year-old do it, but they're out there. And a 24-hour, 18-wheel truck wash was going in directly across the street, and we were able to get them to revoke that. It was not approved. And as we speak, I'm awaiting word on batting cages and a putting green and that kind of thing to go in. So they've been extremely receptive to what we have to say.

Signal: Is the Town Council generally anti-growth?

Kunak:: No. "Anti-growth" is something you keep hearing because we don't like traffic; we don't like when we have to drive across the Santa Clarita Valley and wait at traffic lights for long periods of time. And you know, growth is going to cause that. If you're realistic, you know there's going to be growth. It's going to happen. We try to manage it, if we possibly can; to think about what the ramifications are going to be.
    As part of the school board (also, I am) trying to look to get our schools built in advance of the need for them. A new school opened last year, and we will be opening one in 2006, trying to stay ahead of the curve as best we can so we don't have those overcrowding problems.
    It's difficult, and things are going to come and they're going to have an impact, and I think the approach we're taking is that we realize it's going to happen. We try to make it manageable; we try to put in the proper mitigations.
    Also an issue, not to digress, with the trucks — we were able, through the Community Standards District just implemented, (to) have a trucking section, so there isn't this conflict that would be going on between people driving to the grocery store and the big trucks coming through the I-5. And it seems to be working quite well. There are things given up with all parties concerned, but somehow they seem to be able to live with what they have and be pretty happy.

Signal: How many people live in Castaic now?

Kunak:: We are now around 19,000, I believe.

Signal: NorthLake will add 4,000 homes; how many new residents is that?

Kunak:: We figure 10,000 (to) 12,000 more residents, at least.

Signal: Castaic couldn't become its own city today because it doesn't have the tax base; is the Town Council moving in that direction? Do you want to see new industrial and commercial development come in, so you can become your own city?

Kunak:: The decision has come up, on and off, during my term on the Town Council, usually when something negative occurs countywide, like the potential closure of Castaic Lake — "Gee, how can they do that? Why aren't we becoming our own city?" I'm a volunteer. I'm learning about it. I'm involved with other things that also take up some time. We get these additional views on the council, try to get as much information as we can. I think it's certainly something that we've discussing.
    The issue has recently come up about the possible annexation of part of Castaic, the Commerce Center, which has led to quite an uproar from a lot of the people, and again, about putting the idea of cityhood on more of a fast track that it might have been.
    What you say is very clear: There isn't the economic base. I don't foresee it happening immediately. It's something that people have continued to think about.
    As I sit here I can say, as I've said, my experience with L.A. County in getting things done for us has been very, very good. I don't see a lot of problems as we sit here today. With the growth and what's going to happen, and what the residents are going to choose to do in the future, is an open question, and I think all options need to be explored, and (I) couldn't give you a decision — "Yes we need to that and we need to do it now" or "No, we're against it." We're in the learning mode as we grow and more people come in, and (we) want to give the people coming in an opportunity to get their views, because they'll be part of the city also, and see the direction we want to go.

Signal: There has been talk the last few years of the west side communities — Castaic, the future Newhall Ranch, Westridge, Stevenson Ranch, Sunset Pointe — eventually joining together to form a "supercity." Tell us about the discussions between Castaic and Stevenson Ranch in that direction.

Kunak:: I think some of the things that have been happening are serving — although it hasn't happened yet, I know at our next Town Council meeting, the president of the now-West Ranch Town Council will be attending. We've had a council member go to their meeting.
    I certainly don't want to see things polarized. I like the things I see in Santa Clarita, for the most part. (We) seem to have gotten along very well with the people in Santa Clarita — both their facilities, the things they provide, and their governmental figures, the one that I'm familiar with. Suddenly, as things start changing, we have their "Shop Santa Clarita" (campaign), which has caused a problem — more so with Stevenson Ranch than Castaic, but (it) makes you wonder what's going on.
    Now we have this issue where there is an attempt to annex part of Castaic, which I can say came as a big surprise to me, to find out that it was happening. Now that I found out that it's happening (I'm) learning about what's involved and the issues and the potential effect that it can have on future cityhood. I don't want to see something like that occur that's going to be another obstacle to forming a city, if that should be the desire — so therefore, I'm spending some additional time looking into that to see what I can find out.
    The people that it affects the most, the people in the Commerce Center, I think should be the ones who have the say on what they want to happen them. It shouldn't be me or anyone else; it should be the people (who) are affected.
    I'm concerned that they don't get all the information that they need. I see there's a CD-ROM (produced by the city of Santa Clarita) and there's a discussion of saving 5 percent on the utility taxes, which makes sense. I mean, "I can save you 5 percent; how would you like if I could do that for you?" The answer, unless there's something wrong with you, should be yes.
    I need to look further into the reason. Is Santa Clarita concerned about revenue? Do they need additional revenue? With development going to slow there eventually, how are they going to keep their services there going? Will it result in, down the line, an increase in the property taxes for the people in the Commerce Center? I'm speculating. I don't know. But I do want information, and I am trying to get it, and we have invited (Santa Clarita) Mayor (Bob) Kellar and I believe he's coming to our next Town Council meeting to see if we can get some other information on that.
    I can tell you that we have no received no official word that this was even happening, and when I heard about it in July I wrote to LAFCO (Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission) to ask. (That was) mid-July. Got a letter back in mid-August saying no, nothing's going on. (I) responded to that with an August letter saying please let me know if things change. (I) received no official response (about) anything being filed there —

Signal: If the businesses in the Commerce Center decide they want to join the city of Santa Clarita, will the Town Council support that?

Kunak:: I believe, my own feeling, is if, after getting all the information, it turns out that that's in their best interest, nothing detrimental to that, I wouldn't want to selfishly try to preclude them from doing it. I do want to get the information, as I say, and find out long-term what that means, because it sounds like it's going to be easier to get into the city than get out. I feel an obligation to making sure that some of the suspicions I've heard raised, that I was starting to allude to, that there may be the need for additional revenue for the city that will come from that area, and that while all these nice benefits can be provided to them, as we speak in 2004, what's going to be the situation years from now when you don't have a lot of the revenue stream coming in; when they need to "Shop Santa Clarita" to get sales tax to keep things going; when programs are affected; when they've (got) waiting lists for people outside the city to get involved in things? I think it's time to look into it a little further.

Signal: Would the Commerce Center really be a revenue source? The city of Santa Clarita says the cost of providing services would actually outweigh the taxes generated in the Commerce Center by $250,000 each year. Does it somehow help the county today to have the Commerce Center in the unincorporated area?

Kunak:: There isn't sales tax generated, and that's a major issue. So when I first heard that this might be going on, I wasn't all that concerned, quite candidly, because I didn't think that they would want to do that and didn't think it would turn into the issue it's becoming. As I'm learning more, and learning about the property tax potential and the fact that with the stroke of a pen (in Sacramento) the property taxes can be changed and raised, and that it could be an important part — and in being (within) the boundary between Stevenson Ranch and Castaic ... it might become an important thing down the line that needs to be researched and better understood.
    I jump back to the fact that if Santa Clarita is going to lose money, then they're taking it from their residents — people shopping local currently — and throwing it into something that they say is no benefit to them. So I really don't understand why this would be something they're looking to do. They're intelligent people, so I've got to believe that there's a reason behind it, and I'm trying to understand it. So far all I can really glean from it is that they clearly don't want a second city, and by doing this — even at a cost to them, if in fact it is a cost to them — that it may provide a barrier.

Signal: The Valencia Commerce Center was planned and developed by The Newhall Land and Farming Co., and it's part of the Valencia Master Plan. When you refer to it as "part of Castaic," what do you mean?

Kunak:: The area that you're discussing is within the boundaries, according to the county of Los Angeles, of the unincorporated area identified as Castaic. It is part of the Castaic community, has been part of the Castaic community. My big problem initially is the fact that this is taking place without any discussion by the city of Santa Clarita to the Castaic Area Town Council.
    In fact, I received last Monday (Sept. 27), when I got home late, I had an e-mail (with a) copy (of) a little postcard that was sent out to some landowners, or homeowners, inviting them to a meeting in the Commerce Center about annexing them. And I went there and city of Santa Clarita officials were there — the city manager, the mayor — and they were explaining to them what we've already discussed, what the benefits were. When I had a chance to speak, I obviously — a little sarcastically; I was sitting next to the sheriff's captain (and) I said, "If we had new cadets moving into town, mayor, what if we decided that putting one of them who needed housing into one of your bedrooms — and would pay 5 percent of your mortgage — would be something we should do, but we'd discuss this without talking to you, but listen, you're going to get an extra 5 percent, you're going to have better police presence, someone's going to be living there; it's a win-win situation. Wouldn't that be a wise thing to do?" The analogy being, why would you not let us know what you're looking to do and discuss it before you're handing out CDs and explaining why they should be annexed without discussing it with Castaic?

Signal: Are you saying the opposition, or animosity, over the proposed annexation stems from the lack of communication? Is it that you weren't kissed first?

Kunak:: It starts there. It does start with the idea that this came upon us where it was totally unanticipated. (We) haven't had a chance to look into it. A nice, rosy picture is being painted — maybe, possibly, accurately ... to the Commerce Center businesses. As I say, (we need to look and see) that it turns out that is a great situation for them, and if it's not hurting Santa Clarita people, if they're not throwing money away to do it, then I think it's a decision that they need to make intelligently.
    I do think that we, as advisory group of volunteers looking to do what's best for our community, do deserve an opportunity to understand these issues, look into them further, and make sure that all the information is being put out there before something is done very one-sidedly. And obviously, (you) can make any one-sided argument ... convincing if you don't get any opposition to it. I think the need to look into the entire issue is necessary.

Signal: Evidently some businesses weren't aware they're in the jurisdictional boundaries of the Castaic Area Town Council; is there something the Town Council provides to the businesses in the Commerce Center that might weigh on their decision to join Santa Clarita?

Kunak:: We are there to solicit the views of the people within the boundaries and present them to the county. I am very proud that our efforts have been very, very well received, that we've accomplished many of the things we've looked to accomplish. I'm not aware of anyone really complaining about things that we've done wrong or misrepresented the views of the Castaic residents, and I'm very proud to be able to say that. And if we have issues in the Commerce Center that they need Town Council support with, we're more than happy to listen to them and forward that view on to the county. And I say that it's been my experience that what we've requested, we've been able to receive.

Signal: Going back to the bigger picture, if potential "second cityhood" is a number of years off, and considering the county has been beset with budget problems that have put services in jeopardy — you mentioned the threatened closure of Castaic Lake — do you think there would be benefits to the Castaic area joining the city of Santa Clarita, which is still opening parks and building roads?

Kunak:: As this has just recently started, as we were discussing — we're talking about, to my understanding, just the last couple of weeks that this has been really out there and the effort being made. I'm looking at what's going on and talking to some people, and some of the feedback I'm getting is that yes, they're looking to annex a revenue producer, whatever that may be — property tax or whatever the people are alluding to — without bringing in the rest of Castaic. So I'm hearing from part of the population that it isn't proper they just want to — "cherry-pick" is the word that I've gotten in feedback from people — and take parts that would be beneficial and not take all of the town, which leads me to believe that there are some people who are upset merely because they're not looking to annex the whole thing.

Signal: Feedback from which people? Do you mean residents of Castaic who believe the city just wants to take tax generators and doesn't want the residential?

Kunak:: That's correct.

Signal: On that note, thinking back to 1987, LAFCO removed Castaic from the original Santa Clarita cityhood proposal even though a number of people in Castaic (and Santa Clarita) wanted Castaic to be included. What's your sense of whether the 19,000 people in Castaic today want to be part of Santa Clarita, or form a second city?

Kunak:: Not being around or having the information of what they were thinking in 1987, and looking at what we have, I think it's the same thing I started off with: It's a need to get information, look at the benefits versus the detriments to becoming part of the city, and making an informed decision. I don't see — I have nothing to preclude — any information that would preclude the residents from considering it and possibly desiring it. We do have these different regions I began with, and some of them are very rural —

Signal: Such as Val Verde —

Kunak:: I don't think they would want to be part of a big city. Your more densely populated portions right now might in fact be very receptive to becoming part of the city. I think it's something that clearly needs to be explored, and again, the residents given an opportunity to make that decision, and the situation right now is doing that. It's trying to find out what their feeling is, and this whole issue with the Commerce Center — which might not really be an issue at all — is only out there because of the fact that this might be a major obstacle if they didn't want to be part of Santa Clarita, if they wanted their own city, to being a step in the wrong direction to that goal. And that's why we need to evaluate it very carefully and make sure everybody understands it.

Signal: You're on the Castaic Union School board. The Hart District is planning a new high school in Castaic. When does it open?

Kunak:: There were a lot of hopes that it would be in 2007. The background — because a lot of people don't have this; I know a little something about it — it was going to be built in Hasley Canyon. They found what appeared to be suitable property, and — it's difficult to find suitable property under all the requirements placed upon the school district, and that raised issues with the residents out there in, again, trying to accommodate the residents — (they) were able to work something out with SunCal, with is building out NorthLake, they're the current developer there. They've been very generous and very helpful in trying to set aside area for schools. Keep in mind, the Hart high school district is different from the Castaic Union elementary school district, but we plan, the elementary school district of Castaic, plans on putting new schools into the NorthLake development. There is a brand new one there now; there will be another; there will be a middle school or two — definitely a middle school, possibly two — and land is being set aside for that. And then the Hart district has identified the site and would like to go with the site that SunCal is making available to them.

Signal: Overlooking Castaic lake?

Kunak:: Oh, it's going to be gorgeous.

Signal: You said there were hopes it would open in 2007?

Kunak:: The hope was 2007. The water issues have set that back, and my understanding is it will not happen.

Signal: If the Newhall County Water District won't provide water for NorthLake?

Kunak:: SunCal is looking for alternative sources. They've applied to L.A. County (Waterworks) District 36. I've been to some of the different meetings, trying to see what was going on with them. If they can find water, their decision is, they're ready to move forward. The school board of Castaic adopted a resolution supporting their attempts to find water. The residents haven't complained about the new development going in. Everybody — this is one thing, and how often can you say this? We need a high school, and we need it today, and that's what they are moving toward. I see the earliest being 2008, and I hope that's going to be accomplished.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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