National City residents oppose expansion of eminent domain
San Diego Unin-Tribune, 10/7/04

By Elizabeth White

Residents [of National City] spoke overwhelmingly against a proposal to expand the city's eminent domain powers at a Tuesday night meeting, saying leaders are pursuing redevelopment at the expense of small businesses and property owners.

The joint hearing of the City Council and Community Development Commission drew nearly a full house at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. More than 20 speakers criticized the proposal to allow the city to acquire commercial and industrial properties west of Interstate 805 for the next 12 years as it tries to reinvent its image.

Eminent domain would be used as a last resort if a deal between the property owner and city to sell the land proved impossible, said Byron Estes, CDC deputy director of redevelopment.

A presentation by Estes did not appear to alleviate the fears of many in the audience, though the city's assurances that residential properties are exempt from the proposal did seem to sink in. Almost all of the speakers testified on behalf of small businesses.

While some simply wanted more restrictions on the vast 2,400-acre area the proposal covers, others said they oppose eminent domain in any form.

"You are not treating the commercial and industrial leaders with respect," said Mary Johnson, who owns four pieces of property in National City, including a puppet-making business on 11th Street.

Wayne English said he and his wife bought a piece of property on Fourth Street and Highland Avenue, but now they're reluctant to build on it for fear it might be seized.

"You are the City Council and you were voted in by the people here," said English. "I haven't heard anyone for it. Listen to the people."

English and others said they fear excessive redevelopment will rob the city of its mom-and-pop-store atmosphere in favor of shopping malls and retail chains.

"I have always wondered what happened to the wonderful city I lived in in the 1950s and '60s," said Frieda Pallas-Sprague. "This is a small town. It should stay a small town. Find another town, not National City."

Others said that while the current proposal does not include residences, eminent domain is a slippery slope.

"I'm totally against eminent domain, period," said Ed Bullock, who lives on McKinley Avenue. He said he's gotten offers to buy the house from real-estate agencies, and that worries him, even if they are unrelated to eminent domain. "Maybe we'll sell it if we feel like it, period. But for now we want to live in our homes in peace."

Jesse Ramirez, a city resident for more than 50 years who lives on Plaza Boulevard, said eminent domain payment rarely covers relocation and lost-income costs incurred by the pushed-out owner.

Estes countered that any property acquired by eminent domain is always assessed for fair-market value and can include generous payment for loss of business and relocation.

The high level of response at the meeting was expected. Tuesday's hearing was continued from Sept. 21, when so many people showed up at the council's chambers at City Hall that the meeting had to be postponed to accommodate all the interested residents.

"There are no dumb questions here tonight," said hearing Chairman Ron Morrison. "There will be no rush to decisions. Everyone will get a chance; we're here for the duration."

Morrison, who was in charge because Mayor Nick Inzunza and Vice Mayor Frank Parra own property in the redevelopment area and had to disqualify themselves, reminded the audience that the council hears proposals all the time. Until approved, they are just that – proposals, he said.

Morrison and Councilmen Fideles Ungab and Luis Natividad all told the audience they are not yet sure how they will vote.

There's no rush. The approval process has been slowed in response to public outcry. The city will hold a workshop with residents to get into more detail on the proposal on Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Community Center. The CDC and council won't vote on the proposal until January, Estes said.

Another speaker said he hopes the vote will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision on an eminent domain case out of New London, Conn. The case centers on whether a city can take private property for public use when the property in question isn't blighted or run down and the purpose is purely economic development.

Estes said California eminent domain law is so restrictive that any rules tightened by the court would likely not affect National City. The Connecticut case also involves residential units, something not in the National City proposal.

For some, though, waiting to hear all sides and a decision from the top court isn't enough. A few speakers said three council members should not be able to make such a consequential decision. In response, Ungab said a public vote may be in order.

San Diego Union-Trbune: www.signonsandiego.com