Eminent domain's shadow: GT, woman duel over her home — San Bernardino County (CA) Sun, 1/26/05

By Nikki Cobb

The shrubs standing feeble sentry in front of the tan adobe house on Barton Road need trimming, and the weed-mottled yard is mostly dirt. A dead tree trunk sits hulking off to one side. There's a bag of cement on the front porch.

Jo Stringfield knows her home is neglected. She hasn't been able to muster the energy to finish projects since learning that the city wants the land and if she won't sell, it will be taken by eminent domain.

"I was going to do a little repair work, a little upkeep," Stringfield said. "But why do it, when I don't know how long I'll be able to stay?"

Grand Terrace officials want the 1.9 acres Stringfield's house sits on in the 2200O block of Barton to build Town Center, a shopping complex with a grocery store, restaurants and a new city library.

To make way for the project, the developer wants to buy Stringfield's property as well as her neighbors'.

Most of the other landowners have reached agreements and sold their properties. Stringfield hasn't, and city officials have said they might resort to taking her house and lot by eminent domain.

City Manager Tom Schwab said all the properties in the area were appraised for between $7 and $8 per square foot. He said Stringfield has been in ongoing negotiations with the city, and that eminent domain is a last resort.

At $7 per square foot, Stringfield's 1.9 acres would bring her $304,920. At $8, she'd be paid $348,480.

"We sometimes do need to use eminent domain at the bargaining table," Schwab said. 'But I told the developer, we are not throwing anyone out of their house."

Stringfield, 57, moved to the house as a child in the 1950s. Her family had horses, cows, burros and chickens, and she remembers riding her horse up Barton to Blue Mountain.

After graduating from Colton High School, Stringfield left home. She came back when her mother died in 2002. Stringfield is convinced pressure from the city to sell the family home hastened her mother's death.

"They were like vultures. My mom died in confusion about the house," she said. "It was devastating, the stress they put her through."

Stringfield's neighbors have negotiated deals. But she cries when she thinks about leaving her childhood home.

"I love my home. I have a lot of emotion attached to it," she said. "I hate the term 'holdout." But yes, I suppose I am the last holdout."

Stringfield sees some irony in her negotiations with the city. She said she can't sell her property, bound instead to what the city appraisers deem "fair market value' to create a retail center to shore up the tax base.

"The city wants to generate income," she said. "It's OK for them to want to make money, but I have to take whatever you give me?"

Stringfield said she's spent years "in limbo," and she doesn't know how the battle will end. She doesn't understand how the city could pressure herself and her neighbors, many of them seniors, many ignorant of complex business dealings.

But Schwab said there had been a misunderstanding the city had believed Stringfield didn't live at the house, but rented it out.

He said had he known she lived there, he would have approached the transaction differently.

"It is the (redevelopment) agency's hope that they can come to an agreement and not involve us' forcing eminent domain, he said. "We cannot displace people."

San Bernardino County Sun: www.sbsun.com