11/17/2007

Business owners don't want to budge: Fresno CA Bee, 9/23/07

By Matt Leedy

The Baskin family has been fixing up car seats and selling parts in downtown Fresno for 90 years, and fourth-generation owner Bruce Baskin has no interest in moving the business.

His voice and temper rise when he talks about eminent domain and the city's plans to replace Baskin's Auto Supply and other businesses just south of Chukchansi Park with town homes and apartments.

"We don't want to go anywhere," says Baskin, 48.

Baskin's is in the middle of a six-block area that the Fresno Redevelopment Agency has targeted for homes, stores and fountains promised by Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises.

The redevelopment agency - which plans to buy the land and lease it to Forest City - has the power of eminent domain and can acquire the property from landowners whether they want to sell or not.

Many buildings in the six blocks are vacant, boarded up and fenced off. The area has been labeled blighted by the agency.

But some businesses thrive, including Baskin's - where Bruce and his father Richard Baskin often are busy installing new upholstery in classic cars.

"When everyone moved north and fled downtown, we stayed here and stuck it out," says Bruce Baskin from inside his Broadway Avenue business. "Now all these big shots want to do something downtown, and they're going to make us leave. Well, I don't think that's right."

Fresno City Council members and redevelopment agency officials say eminent domain would be used only if property owners won't sell willingly or join the project.

But it's important to Forest City that the city has the option.

Forest City had been in talks with the city several years ago about a different version of the project. Plans later were changed to emphasize residential over retail and company officials said the project was put on hold while they waited for the outcome of Proposition 90, a state ballot measure that would have severely limited the use of eminent domain.

The proposition failed to win voter approval last year, and Forest City was back in City Hall last month presenting plans that won praise from the council.

There are about 40 properties that the city must either purchase or get the owners to participate in the six-block project, considered the first phase. And there are many more in Forest City's full project area, which spans another two phases and 85 acres southeast of the baseball stadium. The company only has a timetable for the six blocks. It hopes to finish the initial $232 million project in four years.

In January, the council plans to vote on a spending plan that could include a $100 million public investment in the project. Forest City also must complete a yearlong environmental review, which will include suggestions for three buildings on the local historic registry. Those suggestions could include preserving the buildings, moving them or preserving only their facades, said redevelopment agency executive director Marlene Murphey.

The redevelopment agency won't attempt to buy property in the south stadium area until the environmental review is finished. And then it will first try to acquire the property without using condemnation powers. Agency officials predict that if necessary it would take two years for the eminent domain process to start.

Landowners don't have to sell. They can choose to participate in the redevelopment plans by making all the changes and improvements required by the city.

This could be a daunting task for several businesses. Required changes could be as extensive as adding second-floor apartments, and local businesses would have to foot the bill. Redevelopment agency officials said they would help secure small business loans or government grants.

But Richard Baskin said it would likely be too costly to conform his building to the city's plans.

"If the city wants to pay for it, fine. Maybe we could do that. But for me to do it, I don't see how it would be possible," Baskin said.

If landowners balk, the eminent domain process could begin.

The agency would hire a team of appraisers that would meet with owners and determine the highest possible value of the targeted property.

Property owners could hire their own appraisers and be reimbursed for up to $5,000 of the cost. Murphey says the agency must consider these appraisals but isn't required to use them.

The agency would then need approval from the council for each property it buys, paying the highest possible value determined by the appraisers.

Closing costs are paid by the agency, which also must help find a new home for the businesses and pay moving expenses.

Once landowners find a new location they pay the same property taxes charged on their previous property.

Murphey says eminent domain is rare in Fresno.

In the last 10 years, the agency has bought about 250 properties, she says, and 98% of them have been voluntary sales.

The agency used eminent domain to buy a liquor store to make room for the Kearney Palms Shopping Center near Fresno Street and Highway 99, which opened in 1999.

"Of course, eminent domain is absolutely, positively the option of last resort," City Council Member Larry Westerlund says. "I hope there will be folks who are willing sellers. Certainly they must realize the area around them is very depressed. And we have the opportunity to create something really great for downtown, and all of Fresno, with a vibrant, living, breathing area."

Reviving downtown is a good justification for eminent domain, agrees Bill Higgins, a legislative representative for the League of California Cities.

"If we're going to invest in our inner cities, we need to make sure the investment works," says Higgins, adding that eminent domain power helps ensure cities can assemble large pieces of land and market them to developers willing to build big projects.

But eminent domain has plenty of critics.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would prohibit governments from using eminent domain to buy property that would be turned over to private companies. Cities under the proposal still would be allowed to use condemnation powers to build hospitals, schools, roads and other public-use projects.

"The abuses in eminent domain occur when city councils and redevelopment agencies pick winners and losers in the private-development game," says Jon Coupal, president of the association. "The losers are usually local property owners and family businesses."

In downtown Fresno, a handful of families may prove to be stubborn holdouts.

Rick and Nanette Stockle own Mecca Billiards and have sold pool tables from their Fulton Street building for 21 years. Mecca has become well known, in part, for the colorful paint job on the Stockles' building. It's pool-table green and decorated with giant billiard balls and a pool cue.

Nanette Stockle does not want to start over in another location.

"We've prospered down here, but it took us a while to get established," she says.

The Mecca building is 7,500 square feet and has a parking lot of an equal size. Stockle doubts she can afford a similar-sized setup anywhere else.

"Where are we going to go?" she asks.

Larry Kragh doubts he can move his Arrow Electric Motor Service from its Broadway Street locale just south of the stadium.

Kragh's 55-year-old company started by his father repairs air conditioners and turbines that farmers use to move water to their crops. He says most of his machines are old and wouldn't survive a move. And some of his equipment can't be used legally at another location. The city would be required to move it, but not to offer further aid.

Kragh uses two ovens to burn off insulation so old turbines can be repaired. One is 33 years old; the other 22 years old. He has permits to use them in his 22,500-square-foot building. But Kragh says new air pollution control regulations would prohibit him from getting permits for the ovens at another location.

Kragh also fears he would lose customers if he moved.

"I have a business that's been here since 1952. I grew up with my Dad in this business and I've worked all my life here," Kragh says.

"Everyone knows where I'm at. Why would I want to move?"


Fresno CA Bee: http://www.fresnobee.com