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Caltrans to Pay for Newport Bridge Site : State Court Opts for ‘Ludicrous’ Result

Times Staff Writer

For those who may have been wondering who is responsible for a legal gridlock enveloping a Newport Beach bridge, a state appellate court made it official Tuesday--Caltrans.

In a result that the justices themselves called “ludicrous,” the blame fell not on traffic engineers, but on Caltrans lawyers, who lost a bid to avoid paying for Orange County property the state sought to condemn for a bridge-widening project in Newport Beach.

Now, under a ruling Tuesday by the state Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, the County of Orange is entitled to $56,429 for tidelands taken by Caltrans to build the Newport Bay Bridge, which cleared a longtime highway bottleneck.

Caltrans Persisted

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While the engineers were building the bridge, Caltrans lawyers had sought to condemn the county-owned land without compensation under what justices called a wrongheaded legal theory. The state persisted through unfavorable verdicts in a Superior Court trial, one appeal, and then a rehearing.

In all three actions, the results were the same--the state would have to pay adequate compensation for land it wanted to condemn.

“It seems ludicrous to us that the state should actually have to pay for the privilege of erecting a bridge which, although it serves a state highway, primarily benefits county residents,” Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. wrote in a unanimous opinion. “But given the manner in which Caltrans has proceeded, we are left no alternative. . . . “

The coastal tidelands in question were given by the state to Orange County in 1919 to hold in trust for the public. At statehood, the federal government had granted the same tidelands to the state, also to hold in public trust.

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The land was to be used for the bridge, a public purpose. Crosby noted several methods besides condemnation that Caltrans could have used to acquire the property at no cost.

The state Legislature, he said, could have passed a bill claiming the land. Or Caltrans, claiming an interest in the land in the public trust, could have filed suit to seek a simple declaration of the state’s rights by a judge.

Instead, Caltrans lawyers tried the condemnation route, which requires that the party giving up the land be compensated for the loss. And the agency’s lawyers argued that the public benefit of the project relieved the state of compensation responsibilities. The county, for its part, insisted on payment for the condemned land.

Caltrans lawyers could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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But Edward N. Duran, deputy county counsel, allowed as how he felt “glee” over Caltrans’ persistent losses in the case. But he preferred to talk about what a great job the state agency did when it replaced the old bridge with a six-lane, $9.2-million span.

Grateful for Bridge

“It was a wonderful idea, and we’re very pleased they did it,” Duran said. “There’s no doubt everybody is grateful the bridge was replaced.”

In rendering the final ruling Tuesday, Justice Crosby wrote, “We suspect this protracted litigation could have been avoided entirely had state officials simply telephoned their county counterparts and solicited a donation of the land in exchange for the construction of a new bridge which would primarily benefit local citizens.

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“Instead, the state chose to litigate. The county, as it turns out, obtains a windfall it ought to be ashamed to collect, a new bridge and a judgment as well.

“But there is no doctrine, statute, or case to relieve the state of the obligation to pay now,” Crosby wrote. “Perhaps there should be.”


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