In eminent domain cross-hairs: Pasadena (CA) Star-News, 5/4/05

Monrovia officials eye site of auto repair shop for housing development

By Sonya Geis

When Bernard Buller bought an old gas station in Monrovia 22 years ago, the corner lot facing railroad tracks and a cemetery must have seemed like the last place anyone would want to put houses.

But Monrovia has changed. Now, with a decades-long city agenda to upgrade Monrovia's image and property-tax values, and a red-hot housing market, Buller's lot has become a prime development site.

Buller doesn't want to sell his property, at the corner of Duarte Road and California Avenue. But city officials insist they need his lot to improve the whole block. And they're initiating eminent domain proceedings to get it.

The city has been buying property on the block for years, some of it vacant and crime-ridden, Scott Ochoa, Monrovia city manager, said. "We really wrestled with what to do with this property we assembled," he said.

Soon there will be a major development nearby where the Gold Line will stop, he said. Given that, and the need for affordable housing, "all these issues come together in terms of the best use of that land, which is residential home-ownership," Ochoa said. And without Buller's land, "it's not really a usable development site."

The city wants to put in 15 to 25 condominiums on Buller's corner, Ochoa said. They have offered Buller increasing sums for the property, now home to Buller's hobby activities and two tenants, an auto mechanic and a smog-tester. The last offer was $709,000, Ochoa said. Buller wouldn't even consider it.

Buller, 67, lives in San Dimas. He spent his life savings to buy the property in 1981 to have a place to work on cars. He understands the city's position, he said.

"The thing they're thinking of building is very high-gloss, very fancy," he said. With a developer eyeing the site, "they've got Mr. Dollars out there saying, ‘I'm not going to put up housing there and have people looking out their windows at that (junk).' "

Buller says nearby properties the city already acquired were used as drug houses or were magnets for drunken fights on Friday nights.

But he's paid off the mortgage on his property. He relies on his tenants' rent for income. He can't find any other suitable place to work on cars. He just doesn't want to leave.

"I'm dug in there, big time," Buller said. "Everything in this world is not about money. This is my life. This income I have coming in, I need that to live. And what I'm doing with my life is my hobby. I like my life the way it is."

The city will hold a public hearing at a regular City Council meeting Tuesday night at 7:30 in City Hall to initiate eminent domain proceedings on the land.

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