Eminent-domain suit targets downtown land: Riverside (CA) Press-Enterprise, 6/20/06

Riverside County wants to build a law library on land the owners don't want to sell

By Richard K DeAtley

Several prime pieces of property across Main Street from the Riverside County Historic Courthouse are the target of a county eminent-domain lawsuit seeking the land as a new location for the county law library.

The county had previously approached the owners — the son and two daughters who inherited the property their father bought about 40 years ago — to negotiate a sale. They have other ideas, their attorney said Tuesday.

"In a nutshell, they are not interested in selling," Glendale attorney Arnold K. Graham said by telephone. "The property has been offered as a long-term lease and the county has turned that down. One of the legal questions is, does the county have to condemn the property when it can get it through a lease?"

It isn't that simple, said County Counsel Joe S. Rank. The downtown Riverside property sought for condemnation is part of a larger plan that involves land swaps "to establish a more cohesive downtown legal arena," he said.

The county would put the law library across from the historic courthouse and the Hall of Justice criminal courts building.

It would be on the same side of the street as the Family Law Courthouse, the Riverside County Bar Association and a county building that includes the court administration offices and the district attorney's offices.

Neither the county nor the property owners would disclose Tuesday what they think the property is worth.

The property owners said the county made overtures in 2004, then made an offer in February 2005 that was withdrawn because the assessment it was based on was too old.

Another assessment was done this March, and the owners were waiting for a new offer, but instead found out Tuesday that the lawsuit had been filed June 8.

The property owners aren't the only ones facing uncertainty.

"We are the people who are stuck in the middle," said Michelle Vasquez, 38, of Riverside, a tenant in one of the buildings.

She had to close Michelle'z Restaurant & Bakery to customers in April because of the uncertain future. The business now does catering only.

"We had standing room only at lunchtime. We had a line out the door," she said.

Vasquez said the legal requirements that she disclose that the county was seeking to take over the property have prevented her and her partners, including her husband, from selling the business. She said they had invested more than $200,000 in the business.

Graham, the lawyer for the owners of the property, said siblings H. Grace Fershko, Ernest A. Zinke III and Frances Z. Randall, have both emotional and financial ties to the property, which their father, Ernest A. Zinke II, bought at least four decades ago.

"We have owned the property when times were not so good in Riverside," said Victor Fershko, 63, of Loma Linda, the husband of H. Grace Fershko.

Victor Fershko said the family hung on to the property anyway, sitting through the various downtown improvements including the restoration of the historic courthouse. "The idea is, we keep it for our children."

The across-the-courthouse location now makes it "a plum," Graham said.

Rank, the county counsel, said negotiations can continue despite the lawsuit.

"That's the way we want to resolve it," he said.

Riverside Press-Enterprise: http://www.pe.com