Eminent domain law paves way: Los Angeles CA Daily News, 6/16/07

Newhall upgrade planned

By Judy O'Rourke

The recent approval of an eminent domain law moved the city c[of Santa Clarita CA] loser to carrying out plans to upgrade downtown Newhall, though officials hope some landowners will willingly sell.

Anxious property owners on a block targeted for a $10 million civic library are taking a wait-and-see approach, but the city says the measure follows state laws and simply spells out its long-stated objectives to improve the rundown area.

"We primarily passed an ordinance that is identical to state law," said Chris Price, the assistant city engineer overseeing the redevelopment project.

A recent state law requires municipal redevelopment agencies to adopt such measures by July 1.

In Santa Clarita, the five-member City Council acts as the Redevelopment Agency. It's had authority to invoke eminent domain in the redevelopment zone since 1997, but the new measure formalized that power.

A contentious public hearing Tuesday on the proposed expansion plans for Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital overshadowed other items on the council's agenda, which included the eminent domain law. It drew no comments.

Should the council grant the measure final approval June 26 it will become law, taking effect a month later.

Backing the measure is the city's Senate Bill 53 program. It spells out the procedure for invoking eminent domain step-by-step.

While many aspects have been discussed before, the program includes provisions for what happens if negotiations fail and the city files a lawsuit to acquire property it has condemned.

"The Agency, when it files the condemnation action or later, may seek an order of possession so it can gain possession of the property while the litigation proceeds concerning the value of the property," the document says. If the court sides with the property owner, the city would have to pay his or her court costs, it says.

A letter sent by the city in April told Spruce Street property owners they'd be given a "reasonable opportunity to present relevant material the agency would carefully consider" if they were dissatisfied with purchase offers.

"If a voluntary agreement cannot be reached the agency will either institute a formal condemnation proceeding or in the alternative, decide not to acquire the property," the letter said.

The city snapped up a Union 76 gas station property at Lyons last year for about $840,000 and has said it would pay market rate for the handful of buildings on Spruce, a cul-de-sac parallel to San Fernando Road, bracketed by Lyons Avenue and Eleventh Street.

A review is planned next week for independent appraisals on the handful of Spruce properties, where the library is envisioned. In a closed-door meeting, the redevelopment agency would decide what happens next.

If the city buys the properties, details of the transactions would be made public.

Should the owners refuse to sell, nothing would happen overnight.

"We would probably continue negotiations for 45 to 60 days," Price said. "If that's unsuccessful, we would get further direction from the council."

A man with a plum spot on Spruce voiced concern Friday his property will be undervalued.

"The (high-profile property) always gets prime dollars but appraisers don't take that into account, they just compare similar-sized properties," said Tom Fitterer, whose building is occupied by a tattoo parlor and gallery.

Meanwhile, a needs assessment conducted by the county library suggests the Newhall branch should occupy some 18,000 square feet to 24,000 square feet, more than five times the size of the existing Newhall library.

City officials and county library chiefs who met earlier this month to discuss the library project did not reach a decision, said Pamela Broussard, a county library spokeswoman. The city's draft budget for the coming year earmarks $1 million to design a new library to replace the 4,842-square-foot Newhall branch some quarter-mile away.

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