SLV Water District votes to use eminent domain to take Felton water system: Santa Cruz CA Sentinel, 2/9/07

By Gwen Mickelson

The San Lorenzo Valley [SLV] Water District voted unanimously Thursday night to use eminent domain to take control of the privately owned Felton water system.

By approving a resolution of necessity, the five-member water district board took the final step needed before initiating the eminent domain process to take over California American Water Co.'s water system in Felton, which serves 1,350 customers.

"For me it was really the issue of local control. The people of Felton have made it very clear that they wanted this to happen and they want local representation," said Director Larry Prather.

Eminent domain is the power of government to take private property for public use, provided owners receive fair compensation.

Applause and cheers greeted the directors' vote.

"We are very, very excited," said Jim Mosher, a member of Friends of Locally Owned Water, which has led the charge for public ownership of the water system. "This is a major step in the process. It confirms all the testimony and all the work FLOW has done over the last four years. This truly is a David and Goliath story and we are going to win"

Cal Am representatives, however, said the vote will land the issue in court.

"It's unfortunate that this is going to resort to litigation. We believe the water district cannot establish the elements of eminent domain in court," said Cal Am lawyer David Skinner.

More than 50 people attended the meeting in Ben Lomond. Nearly 30 speakers, complaining about high rates, urged the district to take the system over.

"I'm outraged to the point of the limit of my patience," said Larry Ford, a FLOW member.

The main purpose of Thursday's hearing was to give Cal Am the opportunity to address the board to raise issues, according to district staff.

Skinner objected to the move, stating in a letter that the district did not comply with government regulations and did not offer the true value of the system when making an earlier offer to buy it.

"The water district cannot provide better service or better water quality than California American," Skinner told directors Thursday night.

During more than four years of attempts by Felton residents to buy the waterworks, Cal Am has consistently said it is not for sale.

Unhappy with the price of water and certain aspects of service, Felton residents in 2005 passed an $11 million bond, Measure W, to buy the waterworks and asked to become part of the neighboring San Lorenzo Valley Water District.

That money should be sufficient to pay for both eminent domain proceedings and the water system, said Barbara Sprenger, a FLOW member.

The San Lorenzo Valley Water District board of directors voted unanimously in December to offer $7.6 million to Cal Am for the Felton system. District Manager Jim Mueller estimated that eminent domain proceedings could cost up to $500,000.

A court case could take 12 to 18 months to resolve, said Mueller.

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