Businesses battling eminent domain: San Diego CA Union-Tribune, 5/5/07

By Tanya Sierra

For 50 years Ray Brock supported his family by running an auto body shop on 11th Street and National City Boulevard [in National City CA]. He built up a clientele base so loyal it includes generations of families and a couple who travel more than 40 miles from Ramona for repairs.

Humberto Rodriguez Sr. bought Ray Brock Auto Service six years ago from Ray Brock, who still owns the land.

But the future of Ray Brock Auto Service is in limbo. National City is trying to take over the property using eminent domain, an authority it is preparing to extend for 12 years.

Eminent domain, the government's ability to take “blighted” private land to make way for new development, has polarized property owners around the country, prompting ballot initiatives and protests aimed at curtailing the power.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 to uphold a Connecticut city's right to evict homeowners to make way for a waterfront project jump-started anti-eminent domain movements elsewhere. That decision stated that private economic development benefits the public as much as public projects do.

In California, cities are banding together to sponsor a statewide ballot measure that would strip some of their condemnation authority to appease special interest groups, which could propose more stringent limits through their own measure.
Background: National City's eminent domain authority expires in August.
What's changing: City officials set a public hearing for June 19 to renew the power for 12 years.
The future: National City is involved in five condemnation cases to clear the way for condominium towers on National City Boulevard.

Last June, voters in Chula Vista approved an initiative that restricts the city's ability to use eminent domain.

In National City, officials are using eminent domain to force out Brock and four other business owners.

His auto body shop may not fit the city's upscale vision for redevelopment, but Brock said his business is a viable one.

“It's not a pretty business,” Brock said. “But we've fed our families for a lot of years on it.”

The City Council set a hearing for June 19, when it will take public comment and vote on extending the authority that expires in August.

The city can use eminent domain to obtain blighted commercial, industrial or vacant and abandoned properties. It negotiates to buy at fair-market value. If an owner refuses to sell, the city can get a court order forcing a sale.

In the past three years, city officials have used eminent domain to clear out several bars and other businesses on National City Boulevard, where an education center replaced an adult bookstore and the Pussycat Theater, which showed X-rated movies.

Although officials say they seldom need a court order, they are involved in five condemnation cases.

Near 11th Street and National City Boulevard, Brock and two other businesses – a dry cleaner and a car lot – are refusing to sell or are still negotiating with developer Jim Beauchamp. He is proposing Park Village – 227 condominiums in a 24-story building.

One block south, the Eagles fraternal organization and a plumbing-and-heating business are battling to keep property from being sold to developers Sam Ynzunza and Eric Chaves of ARE Holdings. That project, The Cove at San Diego Bay, is a proposed 16-story condominium tower.

Brock sold his business to Humberto Rodriguez Sr. six years ago but still owns the land. He said fighting eminent domain for three years has been draining. “My tenant makes a living here,” Brock said. “For him, he don't know where he's going to be in six months or a year from now. That's a terrible cloud to live under for the last three years.”

Beauchamp offered Rodriguez and Brock rental space in one of his other properties, but Brock said he didn't like the locations.

“There's always a loss of business when you move,” Brock said. “We bought this property close to National (City Boulevard) because that's where we want to be.”

Brock and other small-business owners say the city's haste to shut them down can create blight. In some cases, Brock said, buildings in areas slated for redevelopment have sat vacant as developers finalize planning, financing and permits.

Although the city's eminent domain authority does not apply to residential property, residents have objected each time the issue has come up in recent years.

The condemnation debate turned especially rancorous in 2003, when the council tried expanding the eminent domain zone to include nearly the entire city. City officials and staff held numerous public hearings and workshops, and created giant maps of the city so the community could visualize the affected areas.

Residents still objected, and the city scrapped the plan in December 2005.

City officials say renewing their eminent domain authority is a routine aspect of redevelopment.

“Why wouldn't we,” asked Brad Raulston, the city's redevelopment director. We want “to maintain the authority to do redevelopment, which has proven to be a positive thing for the city.”

San Diego CA Union-Tribune: http://www.signonsandiego.com