San Pablo residents fuming over eminent domain proposal

By Tom Lochner
Contra Costa Times

Residents in San Pablo are unhappy with the city redevelopment agency's proposal to renew for 12 years its expired authority to acquire property by eminent domain.

Many at a public hearing last week accused the city of plotting to take over their homes or businesses and turn them over to private developers. Officials countered that the city has no current plans to use eminent domain, and that state law prohibits invoking eminent domain to turn any owner-occupied residence over to a private person or company.

But most of the 100-plus who attended were not placated, and they vowed to fight on. Officials meanwhile pledged to communicate better and to make the case that eminent domain is an important, "last resort" land acquisition tool for the benefit of the city and its residents.

The term "eminent domain" connotes government's authority to force an owner to sell it a property for the public's benefit and for just compensation. Eminent domain historically has been used to obtain land to build roads and public schools and utilities, but government entities also have invoked it to acquire "blighted" property for economic development. Once connoting only physical decay, the term "blight" has morphed in recent decades to include "economic blight," a criterion many critics say is too subjective.

Many property rights advocates believed the pendulum had swung too far to the side of government when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 affirmed the authority of New London, Conn., to condemn an old residential neighborhood to make way for more upscale development next to a new campus for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, in order to generate jobs, taxes and other economic benefits.

California voters in 2008 passed Proposition 99, which generally prohibits government from acquiring by eminent domain an owner-occupied residence for the purpose of conveying it to a private person or company.

San Pablo City Manager Brock Arner, City Attorney Brian Libow and Assistant City Manager Kelsey Worthy repeatedly emphasized the point of Prop. 99; that appeared to resonate with some of the attendees, but not David Liou, owner of San Pablo Auto Body and Rumrill Properties, who said he bought business property in 2005 when real estate boomed. Now that the market is depressed, he fears the city might want to take his property on the cheap, he said.

Residents and officials also presented starkly different views of the accomplishments of San Pablo redevelopment to date. Worthy singled out hundreds of new homes at the site of the former El Portal shopping center and along Giant Road, a Holiday Inn Express hotel, senior homes and others. Resident Xavier Viramontes, on the other hand, summed up the achievements as, "they painted those buildings" on a stretch of 23rd Street; he added that what the agency did at El Portal was good.

"It seems to me that the agency has acquired enough land and all they have to show for it are a lot of vacant lots," Viramontes said the day after the meeting. "Where is the redevelopment?"

He and the city also disagreed on the Circle S Project along San Pablo Avenue where the agency invoked eminent domain in the mid-2000s to force the sale of two mobile home parks where it plans a mixed-use project. Worthy sees "a lot of success stories" among former residents who moved to better homes thanks to generous relocation assistance from the agency. But Viramontes said, "You're moving the poor people out" and noted that a parking lot is all that has been built at the site.

Tuesday's discussion started off on a sour note when the public hearing, which was supposed to start at 7 p.m. according to a notice mailed to households citywide, actually began around 8:30 p.m., leaving many residents angry; some complained additionally that the notice should have been translated into Spanish, given that San Pablo has a majority of Latino residents.

Some used the occasion to vent other grievances, such as their experiences with code enforcement and building officials. Others complained about a city Web site that they said does a poor job of informing residents and attracting potential investors.

Several derided the omission of San Pablo's next-door neighbor, Richmond, from a draft report for the meeting that showed San Pablo has more crime per capita than its neighbors -- Albany, El Cerrito, Hercules and Pinole.

Michael Garcia of Tierra West Advisors, the consultant that produced the report, explained that the idea was to compare cities of comparable size.

Mayor Leonard McNeil and the rest of the council acknowledged that communication between the council and residents has broken down to some extent and pledged to address residents' concerns.

The discussion of eminent domain will continue at the City Council in April.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760.



San Pablo,other CCC cities and eminent domain

(1)San Pablo residents were not "unhappy". They were livid. They filled the chamber, the lobby and there were many in the courtyard. (2) "no current plans" is no protection for the people. (3) Everything being decided re eminent domain and all building issues is being decided by city employees who don't live here, don't pay taxes here and have no long term vested interest in our city or the residents.They are here to suck out casino money and exclude San Pablo people from all decisions, except a few who are paid well to co-operate. None are properly informed as required by the Brown Act, the California law. Per email from the city, out of 190 city employees only 30 are residents. All hiring is done by the city manager who not only does not live in this city, but does not live in the county....nor does the planning manager. (4) Proposition 99 (and subsequent legislation) was written by the California Redevelopment Association which is composed of pro-building RDA people from the cities and financed by bond agents (Wall Street) that sell debt to cities that lasts up to 50 years and is a powerful lobby agent in Sacramento that moves billions of $$ out of California back to Wall Street through debt service depriving our schools and social services of needed revenue. (5) Prop 99, according to the California Legislative Analysts Office "will not likely significantly alter government land acquisition practices..." Read: There's too many loop-holes in the wording. They can grab your land and unless you have a lot of money for attorneys for a long fight, you must sell to the RDA at current market value no matter what you paid for it. See also: "Phony California Eminent Domain Ballot Measure Hard Pill To Swallow"

See: "Redevelopment: The Unknown Government" (an online book).

See: "Subsidizing Redevelopment in California" by independent analyst Public Policy Institute of California. -how the people's land and taxes make the rich builders even richer and leave the people in debt. See:wikipedia-tax increment financing. Once building is done in a project area, all properties in area are deemed improved and all taxes can be raised. In San Pablo, over 90% of the properties are in project areas. All tax increments go back to RDA for more building rather than for schools and needed services.

See:Freespace: "The Deep Dishonesty of Proposition 99". (6) re "public benefit". The planning manager stated at a General Plan Advisory Committee meeting months ago it was not decided what the Circle S property would be used for.

See: "California Appeals Court Reminds Cities Must Decide Public Use Before Condemnation." Now he says it is for 'mixed use'. There will be no public benefit to San Pablo people in building on this property when there is a glut of commercial and residential property on the market and projections are there will be for many years. This property (acquired by evictions by eminent domain) is being used to pay his consultant friends tens of thousands of dollars (see San Pablo budget online) and next come the rich builders to suck more money out of San Pablo if the people don't put a stop to it. The Committee appears to have been convinced by the planning manager it is a good idea. He has explained nothing to them about how their taxes will go up to finance the police, fire, etc. that will be needed for new buildings, or how this tax increment money deprives the schools and social services of revenue, or how there is a glut of commercial and residential property now and banks are holding property off the market so they can cash in when interest rates go up, or how people in this economy are broke and will not be able to buy whatever goods or services are in the new buildings, or how anything that would be put in the buildings is already available in surrounding cities, or how any jobs created will not be suitable for San Pablo people. This "public benefit" plan was done through eminent domain to get rid of poor defenseless people to pump tens of millions more out of San Pablo by people who do not live here or pay taxes here. (7) re: Kelo v. New London: Last I heard on 'Democracy Now' Pfizer " changed its mind" about building that would supposedly create jobs and bring in tax revenue. So where once you had a thriving little community of tax paying citizens, you now have bulldozed vacant land. The greedy, ill-informed city councils across the country agree to RDA projects that are destroying our cities and putting the people in debt to Wall Street thinking they will get more tax money to create bigger government. And it's all done through eminent domain. (8) See Ca Code 33422.3 at "Preference for employment of project area residents" This law mandates ("shall") any work over $100k shall employ workers that are project area residents. Millions and millions of dollars of building has occurred in San Pablo with NO STIPULATIONS IN THE CONTRACTS FOR JOBS FOR RESIDENTS and all approved by the city council. The result? Hundreds of foreclosures, no doubt many of which were unnecessary. People don't have money to support local businesses or pay house taxes so after 5 years their home can be sold out from under them on the courthouse steps. Who is buying these foreclosed houses? The one across the street was bought by a friend of our planning manager, according to a conversation I had with a worker there. All done through eminent domain. HOW IS THIS NOT A PLAN TO CLEAR OUT POOR PEOPLE? Where do they go? Check reading: eminent domain (RDA) creates homelessness or they go one the dole requiring more tax support when state and county tax revenue is continuing to go down. (9) To San Pablo people: Next General Plan Meeting on March 11th. See city calendar. They are planning your future. They are, by law, to make a "diligent effort" to include all people from all income groups. They are not doing so. To article writer: Your article would be much more interesting if you better informed the people re how what's going on in San Pablo is going on in many other cities.