Escondido council members oppose eminent domain proposal: North County Times (Escondido CA), 7/25/06

By David Fried

A recent [Escondido CA] City Council decision to start eminent-domain proceedings on a local restaurant has two council members saying the city is skirting dangerously close to condemning property in order to benefit private development.

Sunset Centers plans to build a Lowe's home improvement store and 164 condominiums on an 18-acre site that used to house a K-Mart and an entertainment center with a miniature golf course and arcade.

The council approved the project in April. And last week, a council majority agreed to hold a public hearing on Aug. 16 that would clear the way for the city to seize a 1.4-acre parcel at 700 W. Mission Ave. in order to widen the street and clear the way for a cul-de-sac planned as part of the development.

Council members Ed Gallo and Marie Waldron, who voted against holding the public hearing, say they support the overall project, but believe the city is drifting down a dangerous path by considering eminent domain on the property.

"The only way you can put the cul-de-sac in is to take out the restaurant," Gallo said. "The way I'm looking at it, we're going to do eminent domain for a private project, and that doesn't sound right to me."

Pat Thomas, director of public works, said that, even if Sunset did not install the cul-de-sac, the city would need a portion of the property that houses El Mexicano taco shop as part of a long-planned widening of Mission Avenue. That would require the city to acquire a roughly 14-foot-wide strip across the front of the property and relocate the taco shop.

Under the terms of the approved project, however, the developer agreed to be responsible for widening Mission, installing traffic signals and adding the cul-de-sac, which would be a public street, and thus "end up being a public improvement," Thomas said.

Sunset Centers has also agreed to cover any costs associated with the eminent domain proceedings, according to city documents.

Attorneys representing the developer could not be reached for comment Monday.

Waldron said that, based on how the cul-de-sac project has been explained to her, she is not comfortable with the idea of starting eminent domain proceedings — which could force the owners to accept the appraised value and vacate the property — on behalf of the developer.

"If it's for private development, then I would not support this," Waldron said. "It would be the same thing as the Kelo decision."

Waldron's reference was to a Supreme Court decision last year that cleared the way for local governments to force property owners to sell out in order to make way for private development.

The ruling stoked considerable controversy and has resulted in cities and states around the country trying to enact legislation to limit the use of eminent domain, including a proposed ballot initiative that will go before California voters in November.

The council will decide at the August hearing whether to follow through with the eminent domain proceeding. But Waldron and Gallo said that the council has already gone too far.

"To me, it's very clear that just the threat of eminent domain is as serious as going through with it," Waldron said.

City officials said condemnation may not be necessary, since the parties are still negotiating a voluntary sale.

Margaret Peterson, whose family has owned the property for nearly three decades, said she was prepared to sell, albeit reluctantly.

The Lakeside resident said she and her siblings are not against giving up the building, so long as they get enough to purchase a similar commercial property that would net them at least $3,700 a month, about what they collect now from the restaurant.

So far, the developer has appraised the property at a little more than $500,000, and offered to pay about $700,000. But Peterson's family would have to pay half of the closing costs on the sale, and end up losing a valuable source of income, an unacceptable proposal, Peterson said.

Since beginning negotiations with Sunset, the developer has pushed the family to accept the deal, saying that otherwise the city would pursue eminent domain, according to Peterson.

However, that may not be such a bad thing, she said, as eminent domain could keep the family from having to pay any fees or taxes on the sale, among other benefits.

"It's progress, and we don't want to stop progress," Peterson said of the Lowe's project. "But we don't want to end up getting screwed, either."

North County Times: http://www.nctimes.com