6/12/2005

Eminent domain used for new school: (Woodland CA) Daily Democrat, 6/10/05

By Kat Isaacson

In anticipation of an influx of new students during the next five years, architect Dwayne Evans has submitted an updated design for a new Esparto High School on 64.55 acres along County Road 85B, between Highway 16 and Grafton Street.

Administrators are working with the architect to design a high school that would initially accommodate 600 students and eventually as many as 2,000.

However, EUSD is currently in court attempting to enforce eminent domain authority to obtain the property from landowner David Denebeim, who bought the parcel in 1994. Under current law, eminent domain allows school districts to disregard the zoning classification of any land parcel and purchase the property regardless of whether landowners want to sell.

"Schools are unique in their ability to take land; if you or I wanted to do this, we couldn't. It's not unusual for them to take ag land. From my perspective as ag commissioner, it's very counterproductive," said Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner Rick Landon.

EUSD Chief Business Officer Tim Brock said the school district will be purchasing the land by relying heavily on developer fees, which are paid per square foot to EUSD. Brock added the funds are kept in an account and are only spendable on "providing facilities."

Eminent domain hits hard for landowner

But the issue is sensitive for Denebeim, who said he is reluctant to forfeit the land, though he realizes the school district will purchase his land regardless of his wishes.

"Basically, the school district said, 'We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but either way it's going to be your property,'" said Denebeim, a certified public accountant in San Francisco who fell in love with Yolo County during the early 1990s while helping a friend with his beehives. "I initially had a lawyer when the school district contacted me two or three years ago and he wrote them letters and they backed off. But then he retired and moved to Oklahoma and all of the sudden in January, they're calling me again. It just kind of shattered my dreams."

The school district then filed a lawsuit against Denebeim several weeks ago to force his compliance and gain "right of entry," which Brock said has gone fine thus far, with no court appearances necessary.

"There was some resistance ... we need a 'right of entry' to gain unhindered access to the property for testing," said Brock. "But I think we're going to come to an agreement."

Yet Denebeim said he talked to several different attorneys who advised him the school district would get the land regardless of whether he fought them in court. Denebeim said the district originally offered him $450,000 for his property, but after conducting his own research on comparable prices, he realized it was worth much more.

"I told them to back off ... that what they were offering is way too low," Denebeim explained. "So they filed with the judge to force me to let them onto the property ... They said they want the land for a good cause and I said 'Bull.' I don't consider paving over the best farmland in the world a good cause."

And various community members feel the same way, including Esparto resident Brian Paddock, who's lived in the community for about five years.

"I feel that the school district is behaving improperly when they act under a cloud of secrecy with public money to secure their wishes. Information like this should have been released to the media and public long ago," said Paddock. "I even asked a school board member months ago what the progress was on the property and he told me he could not discuss it. I wonder if they are holding off discussing this with the public until the deal is done?"

But Brock explained the EUSD is attempting to take Denebeim's property "under the threat of eminent domain" - that is, the school district is enforcing its eminent domain authority, though the slightly altered language would allow Denebeim to receive a tax break on the sale of the property.

And the school district does have several "good" reasons to eye Denebeim's property; specifically, the property sits adjacent the Winters Canal and enjoys unlimited water access, an aspect hard to come by in California and especially attractive for schools. The acreage also receives good sunlight all year long, little fog and little frost which affects Capay Valley during cold weather as well as a Delta breeze which Denebeim said keeps the area very cool during especially warm weather.

He also stated the property is not ancestral or inherited, inclining him to feel slightly less attached to it, though he described the property and Esparto as a place he could build his "dream home."

District Superintendent Tom Michaelson added he understands concerns from the community, however, with a rapidly expanding community and the school district expecting an additional 600 students within the next five years, there's little choice but to accommodate Esparto's growing educational needs.

"Some people feel there might be other properties we could build on," Michaelson explained. "But we really haven't met any other viable options ... I know there's divided opinion but we took a large amount of time to look at alternate types of properties."

Yet just recently, due to the expensive nature of the lawsuit and the time and energy it's costing him, Denebeim said he finally decided to give the school district a dollar amount he'd be willing to settle for. Though he bought the land intending to continue farming and later retire there, he said he realizes the school district will eventually take the property and he doesn't necessarily mind selling it - but he doesn't want to "get screwed over" financially during the process. But the CPA said the district has been playful regarding an agreement, though he feels his offer is fair and the administration has implied they'll most likely agree to the amount.

"We're actually very close to reaching an agreement, I think," said Denebeim, who's scheduled to appear in court with school district officials, Tuesday.

"Except they keep pushing the court dates back so I don't know if they're playing a game with me; I'm a little unsure ... I just want to get this settled; I just want to be treated fairly," he added. "I don't want to have to settle this in court."

County officials hold misgivings about site proposal

The 64.55-acre site is currently being reviewed by Landon for comments and suggestions, but the commissioner said the proposed site will be doubly difficult for EUSD to obtain because it's protected by the Williamson Act. He added he feels the school district would be wise to look elsewhere for a new high school site, given the effect a school would have on surrounding landowners.

"Our office has a lot of concerns for this ... I told them in the beginning and I'll tell them any time they want - I don't think it's a great idea. A new school is the most impactful thing I can think of," Landon said, who added he recently wrote a letter to the district expressing his disapproval.

The Williamson Act restricts prime agriculture land to uses compatible with agriculture, wildlife habitat, scenic corridors, recreational use, or open space. Records at the Yolo County Assessor's Office show Denebeim maintains a contract with the county to protect his land under the Williamson Act; however, the contract can be canceled if otherwise found to be in the public interest.

Evans said the school district would pursue canceling Denebeim's contract should EUSD move forward with its plan to purchase the land. Should the school district wish to cancel the contract they must receive approval from the county's Board of Supervisors, noted Sargit Dhaliwal, associate planner with the county's Planning and Public Works Office.

"A school would have a negative impact on surrounding growers, because it's very conducive to city growth," Landon explained. "Typically, putting a school in the middle of ag land causes the city to grow around it because that's where everyone wants to live. It wouldn't surprise me if in another twenty years, Capay Valley and Esparto saw a lot of growth."

But putting the school in the middle of suburban areas is exactly what Evans said he originally desired to do. The architect, who previously designed Janesville Elementary and Richmond Elementary in Janesville and Susanville respectively, said he'd prefer to build the new high school closer to Esparto's city center, but acquiring a parcel of land that large would be difficult to achieve. Evans added he'd like to find a place closer to where students live but "it's just not reasonable."

Supervisor Frank Sieferman Jr. said he recognized the agriculture preservation and traffic issues involved with building a new high school on the property, adding the purchase is " not an easy choice ... but this is not a done deal."

"Their needs are great ... and it looks like no matter what is done they're going to pursue this," Sieferman said. "We're going to have to work through the process with the school system and city staff."

Other issues affecting the site proposal

The proposed site will also come with a number of other serious issues attached, including its current zoning classification as protected prime agriculture land, various "ag buffer zones" situated around the proposed site and high traffic already flowing through CR-85B, an often-used alternate route for Highway 16, Interstate 505 and roads near Cache Creek Casino. Various residents in the Esparto community have also noted concerns regarding other privacy invasions such as stadium lights and noise.

"Putting up with the traffic is just part of the community," Evans remarked. "We've been working with a traffic consultant and a traffic engineer who have been conducting studies and there's not that high of volume of traffic on 85B. We're not anticipating any problems."

Michaelson said traffic studies recently conducted in anticipation of the new high school have actually shown traffic has slowed and even reduced around CR-85B. He added additional suggestions regarding how to avoid traffic and safety hazards will be sought from Esparto's Fire Department as well.

The proposed site for the new high school is spacious compared to the 10 acres Esparto High currently sits on, though with the inclusions of sports fields, a stadium with a track and a 100-yard football field, the parcel provides less space for construction than would be ideal, Evans said.

Most of the school site will be constructed upon flat land, though one section will sit upon a ridge included in the acreage. Evans added he'd like to include a student activity area within the vista to maximize students' experience at the new high school.

The proposed site also falls within the vicinity of various agricultural "buffer zones," commonly known as the number of feet from which any person must refrain from entering around agricultural land that has been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Biologist Elpidio Tijerino, with the Yolo County Department of Agriculture, explained there are multiple orchards, vineyards and other ag land surrounding the proposed school site, which will upset farmers and landowners required to maintain a quarter-mile buffer zone around the school site, due to the nature of sprays and oils used on orchards.

Landon said within the last year only two sprays have been used on the land by Denebeim - "Round-up," a herbicide with a half-life of two to 174 days and "Abound," a fungicide with a half-life of several months. Landon explained because both have such short half-lives - that is, half of the amount of time it takes for a herbicide, fungicide or pesticide to dissipate - neither will affect students, staff, administration or any livestock by the time the new high school is built. He said Denebeim remains environmentally friendly, often using a worm bacteria poison - "Dipel" - for bio-control which causes worm's death during digestion.

Landon said he believes any herbicides or pesticides used in the area currently will have little residual effect in the future, though he stressed farmers and landowners surrounding the proposed site will not be happy given the required quarter-mile buffer zone they'll be required to maintain around the school.

Dave Guerrero, with the county's department of agriculture, said before construction can begin, the site must also be approved by the county's Board of Supervisors.

The school district will also need to seek appropriate permits before any construction begins, Michaelson added.

Are there other options?

Michaelson said the school district has spent time looking at about 10 other properties within Esparto's vicinity, though they've been hard-pressed to find any which provide enough space for current needs as well as future growth.

"In general I think the concept is great; (Tom Michaelson) is definitely on the right track," said Paddock. "And I understand the constraints they're under. But I'm not totally convinced the school district or Tom Michaelson is fully committed to understanding the concerns of the community."

Paddock also said he believes the school district would be making a "really bad move" if they enforced eminent domain authority over Denebeim, adding that building the school on CR-85B could be risky, given that "more and more people have discovered that road as an alternate route for Highway 16 and other roads around (Cache Creek) Casino."

Evans said the Esparto school district and his design team are also working with Pamela Wee, an engineer with Sacramento County's environmental department, to complete the necessary environmental reports needed to purchase the proposed school site.

Calls made to Pamela Wee at her office were not returned by press time.


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