NCTD, design team, council members respond to allegations

NCTD, design team, council members respond to allegations
A Solana Beach City Council candidate is accusing current council members and a design team in negotiations to develop the train station property of making a "backdoor deal." Courtesy rendering

SOLANA BEACH — The design team in negotiations to develop the train station property, officials from North County Transit District, which owns the site, and two City Council members are disputing allegations of a “backdoor deal” and conflicts of interest made by a City Council candidate.

Ed Sigel, M.D., claims Rhodes Moore LLC, which includes people with “little experience” and “no contractor’s license … beat-out a very well-respected developer.”

He also alleges current council members Lesa Heebner and Mike Nichols are not running for re-election so they can “take the design jobs for the redevelopment project.”

NCTD officials have been working with the city for years to create a project that will be acceptable to the community but, more importantly, financially feasible for transit operations, NCTD Executive Director Matthew Tucker said.

NCTD received four submittals in response to a request for proposals released last year. Last month a selection committee — made up of Solana Beach residents Tim Coughlin and Gary martin and two NCTD representatives — announced the Rhodes Moore design received the highest ranking.

The conceptual plans were presented to council members in September.

Tucker and Samuel Elmer, the district’s chief procurement and contract administration officer, stress that the deal is still being negotiated.

The NCTD board of directors “has not taken any action to approve a developer for the Solana Beach Train Station project,” Elmer stated in a letter to the Siegel’s campaign.

“Currently, the project is within the negotiations phase with the highest ranked proposer and assuming successful negotiations with that proposer, NCTD staff would make a recommendation to the Board for consideration.”

The board is made up of City Council members from eight North County cities, including Nichols. Elmer said Nichols, or any other representative from Solana Beach, would “likely be precluded from voting” on any project for the 5.6-acre site on North Cedros Avenue at Lomas Santa Fe Drive.

Nichols said if he is still on the board when a developer is chosen he will recuse himself from the vote.

“I always check with legal if there is even a remote chance of a conflict of interest,” he said.

Nichols, a landscape architect, is not currently up for re-election. He said he has no personal or professional relationship with Rhodes Moore and was never contacted by the company to work on the project.

“The whole thing is just totally fabricated,” Nichols said. “It’s an attack on my professional livelihood. It’s just disappointing when someone blatantly makes up something that can be harmful to (someone else’s) professional life with absolutely no proof.”

Heebner, who is not seeking a fourth term in the Nov. 8 election, once worked for a residential kitchen design firm. Siegel claimed she was being considered to design a kitchen for the project, known as Cedros Market.

“What kitchen?” Heebner asked. “I retired from Kitchen Design/Space Planning in 2008, and it is doubtful a largely commercial development would have any need for my residential kitchen expertise.”

Heebner called the allegations “baseless,” “totally fabricated and absolute fiction.”

“If not so serious, they’d be laughable,” she said, noting that she was never contacted by the Siegel campaign. “If they had contacted me, they would have learned that there’s no basis in reality for Siegel’s ludicrous claims.”

Joe Balla, on behalf of Rhodes Moore, said his company has “not hired Lesa Heebner or Mike Nichols, we will not hire them, and they do not have any financial interest in this project or with Rhodes Moore.”

“There has never been any discussion with (them) about them being considered to work on this project or to have any involvement whatsoever,” he said, adding that he hired landscape architect Stone Grove of Solana Beach for Cedros Market..

Balla also said his team “has substantial experience and success.”

“Rhodes Moore and John Dewald are accomplished developers and have completed many successful projects, including the recent Pacific Station mixed-use development in Encinitas,” Balla said. “I have had a successful 35-year career in real estate, as a commercial broker, investor and developer. We have experience in all aspects of development, including entitlements, construction, finance, leasing and management.”

He admits neither he nor Torgen Johnson are licensed contractors or architects, but “it is not necessary for a developer to have a contractor license,” he said.

“At this stage only the conceptual design phase is being created,” Tucker said. “That’s separate from getting the permits to build something. This thing has a long way to go.

“If approved they must get construction permits and they can’t get those without a license,” he added. “These are the front-end guys who are negotiating. It will also come down to who can get financing.

“It could still all fall apart,” Tucker added. “If that happened we would begin negotiating with the second-ranked team. And I will analyze everything before it is presented to the board to make sure it pencils out for us. There are lot of checks and balances that have to occur.”

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