Landowners cry foul in eminent domain push: The (Palm Springs CA) Desert Sun, 5/28/05

By Nelsy Rodriguez

When Cathedral City City Council voted in March to exercise eminent domain over one of the largest undeveloped pieces of property left in the city, it was seeking to put about 60 acres of land together for possible development.

The 12 small business owners in the area - ranging from the Villa Bakery to Jaguars Only - and the landowners of the area near Sarah Street and Ramon Road were told the city did not have a development plan on the table.

But with the approval on Wednesday of a possible 40-acre RV dealership north of Ramon Road. that has changed - and some of the landowners say they have been taken by surprise.

The City Council approved this week a memorandum of understanding with Merritt RV to negotiate the possibility of building an RV sales and service station on 40 of 63 vacant acres north of Ramon Road.

The business fits part of the profile that city planners had mentioned in calling for the power of eminent domain: A big business that will generate much-needed sales tax for the cash-strapped city's general fund.

The plan is moving fast and some of the landowners are stunned.

A portion of the 40 acres is owned by Dr. Kurt Bochner of Palm Springs and his son Clifford Bochner of Murrieta. The elder Bochner did not return calls for comment, Friday, but said at the council meeting Wednesday that he had planned to develop the land and leave it to his kin as his legacy.

"I'm kind of emotionally shook," Bochner told the City Council before it voted to approve the memorandum of understanding.. "(The city had) assured us that there weren't any (other bidders for the land)."

But as Bochner realized, he doesn't have the final say over what happens to his legacy.

The city's Redevelopment Agency, following the March vote, has the power of eminent domain over the land in question. The City Council in March agreed with the RDA that it was important to secure the right to acquire the land, whether the property owners wanted to sell or not, to assure its further development.

The city then told the owners of Katsu's Laundry, Villa Bakery, Jaguars Only, Cathedral City Car Pros, 7-Eleven and all the others on Sarah Street and Ramon Road consideration would be given to keep them included in whatever large project would come.

"It was like a child and you can't give up a child," Mayor Kathy DeRosa told the group in March, assuring them that as a small business owner herself, she would suggest using eminent domain only if it became absolutely necessary.

The memorandum of understanding allows the owner of Merritt RV 120 days to negotiate with the city about developing an RV sales and service complex and related amenities in that area, according to city staff reports.

The memorandum does not guarantee that an agreement will come, but it does restrict the city from negotiating with any other developers for the time period.

The only exception is with property owners.

Redevelopment Projects Manager Keith Scott said the property owners at this point still could influence what happens with the land, "some of which is occupied, some vacant and some of which the property owner may have a project," Scott said.

Scott said Bochner and all other property owners have a right to compete to develop the land.

Mayor Kathy DeRosa did not return telephone calls requesting comment on Friday.

Bochner, who told the City Council he had invested money in forming plans to build low-income housing on his land, said the city wasn't acting fairly by first telling them that no one had expressed interest in the land and suddenly having an interested party.

"I'm 74 years old," Bochner said, "Now we are asked to compete with an outside (developer) in order to develop our own property?

"I don't think the presentation is fair."

The Desert Sun: www.thedesertsun.com