The Planning Commission this week gave its blessing to a controversial proposal that would allow the city's Redevelopment Agency to condemn property to spur industrial and commercial growth in the south part of town.
A commission majority voted Monday to recommend that the City Council approve the plan, which it is scheduled to consider on Nov. 10. The council is scheduled to hold a hearing on the plan's environmental impact report on Monday.
The commission's action, the first step in the approval process, was a setback for a citizens group that has strongly opposed the proposal to employ the state's eminent domain law for redevelopment. Former Councilman William M. Molinari, chairman of South Montebello Area Residents Together, vowed to step up pressure when the proposal goes before the City Council.
"This is just an advisory vote," Molinari said. "We are prepared to present some very vigorous opposition."
Asked whether the group would sue the city if the proposal is passed, Molinari replied, "We're keeping all our options open."
Under the redevelopment proposal, single-family, owner-occupied homes would be exempt from the city's use of eminent domain--a process by which cities can seize property for the public good as long as the owner is paid a fair price.
Only a handful of people watched as the commission approved the proposal. At a public hearing two weeks ago, angry members of the group testified against the plan before more than 60 applauding supporters.
The commission voted 4 to 2, with one absention, to recommend that the council give the Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain in the 287-acre South Montebello Industrial Redevelopment Project area, located in an area south of Washington Boulevard. Commissioner Manuel Haro joined Schneider in opposing the use of eminent domain in the area.
It then voted 4 to 1, with two abstentions, in favor of being able to use eminent domain in the Montebello Economic Revitalization Project area. The district covers 332 acres that start south of Washington Boulevard and stretch north past the Whittier Boulevard commercial district. Haro said he abstained from voting because he has a business in that redevelopment zone. Commission Chairman Henry E. Lozano said he abstained from both votes because he was absent and missed testimony during the public hearing earlier this month.
"The future of Montebello will be improved by redevelopment," said Commissioner David M. Palos, who moved to approve condemnation powers for both areas. "The power of eminent domain will certainly speed up that change."
Commissioner George J. Schneider said he voted against using eminent domain in both cases because use of the powerful redevelopment tool could impose a hardship on area property owners.
"I have a hard time with the words eminent domain, " he said. "To me there are some unknowns."
The plan to give the Redevelopment Agency the power to condemn property has drawn strong support from city staff, and strong opposition from the citizens group, composed of residents and business owners in South Montebello.
City Administrator Joseph M. Goeden said the city's Redevelopment Agency needs eminent domain--but only as a last resort--to be able to assemble sizable parcels of land that can attract new industrial and commercial development. Goeden says the economic stability of the city depends on new development, and the jobs and tax revenue that would come with it.
The citizens group contends that the city has not yet proven that it can protect residents from the nuisance and health risk of increased traffic, noise and pollution, among other things, that could come with redevelopment.
Environmental impact reports prepared by a city consultant indicate the use of eminent domain would hasten development in the area, and indeed could bring additional traffic, emissions, and noise, and also put a strain on area water systems.
But the reports say improvements to the road and water system and compliance with the city's noise ordinance would reduce the impact to well within acceptable levels.
City officials say the environmental impact of each project will be assessed on a case-by-case basis and residents will be protected.
But members of the citizens group say they would like to see specific development plans and buffering measures before the redevelopment agency is given condemnation power.
"Regardless of any potential (financial benefit), we feel the potential adverse impact is greater," Molinari said.
Last week, members of the group and other community activists announced they will seek to recall four council members for their "callous disregard" for residents while considering the redevelopment proposal.