With less than a month before voters decide whether to give the Community Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain in South Montebello, community leaders on both sides say they are confident of victory, and promise intense campaigning.
The opposing forces in the polarizing issue were starting campaigns on Saturday by canvassing shopping centers and city parks, mailing flyers to registered voters and going door-to-door to discuss the impact of eminent domain with residents.
Under state law, redevelopment agencies can use eminent domain to condemn properties in areas considered blighted. The agencies, however, must pay fair market value for the properties, which then can be sold to developers.
Funds for Campaign
Members of Citizens Against Eminent Domain and South Montebello Area Residents Together, a coalition that has collected more than $5,000 in campaign contributions, oppose three ordinances that would give the redevelopment agency the power to condemn property in two large redevelopment areas between the Santa Ana Freeway and Whittier Boulevard, said Larry Salazar, chairman of Citizens Against Eminent Domain.
"It's going to be a battle," said Shirley Garcia, a member of the coalition. "There is going to be a heavy campaign effort."
"I am not . . . worried that they are going to take my house," said Salazar, a South Montebello resident. "I am worried that they are going to change where I live."
But leaders of Citizens for a Better Montebello, which has collected only $50 but has scheduled several fund-raising events beginning this week, contend that the power of eminent domain is necessary to spur commercial development in an area they say is rife with truck lots, storage facilities and acres of wasted space.
Those businesses, they argue, do not generate as much tax revenue for the 8.3-square-mile city as commercial projects, such as auto malls and shopping centers.
"We're fighting for progress all the way," said Councilwoman Kathy Salazar, a coordinator for the pro-eminent domain organization. She is not related to Larry Salazar.
"The people who live in South Montebello will benefit the most (from eminent domain,)" said Joe Coria, a member of the pro-eminent domain organization. "They need to have supermarkets, movie theaters and other commercial outlets." There are no major shopping centers in that area, and there are no movie theaters in Montebello.
The agency has eminent domain power in the North Montebello redevelopment area, where the 4-year-old Montebello Towne Center is located.
The council voted in November to give the redevelopment agency condemnation power in the two South Montebello redevelopment areas. But angry residents and community activists, including former Councilman William Molinari, pressured the council to schedule a special election, which will be held May 2.
Three Propositions Outlined
Proposition 1 would authorize eminent domain in the 361-acre Montebello Economic Revitalization Project (MERP), which includes all commercial property along Whittier Boulevard in the city and a swath of mostly industrial land east of Vail Avenue, between Washington Boulevard and the Union Pacific railroad tracks.
Proposition 2 would authorize eminent domain in the 286-acre South Montebello Industrial Redevelopment Project (SMIRP), which includes all property between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Proposition 3 would forbid any future agency from amending or repealing the first two ordinances without voter approval.
If passed, the ordinances would also bar the agency from taking "single-family residential property which is owner-occupied or occupied by a parent of the owner."
Although the two South Montebello sites are mostly industrial and commercially developed, there are also 360 housing units, according to city records. But of 316 apartment units, city officials say, only 19 apartments in the MERP area and four units in the SMIRP area would not be protected from possible condemnation.
Several lawsuits sponsored by Molinari and others who oppose the city plan are pending, city officials said. Critics also launched an unsuccessful attempt to force a recall of Kathy Salazar and four other council members. Only Edward Pizzorno, who is actively backing the anti-eminent domain effort, was not named in the recall. The recall died last month when recall supporters failed to collect enough signatures.
Opponents of the eminent domain plan complain that South Montebello neighborhoods would suffer unbearable traffic and noise pollution because of increased development. They also have echoed the familiar argument that eminent domain robs property owners of their civil rights.
Pizzorno, who owns a Whittier Boulevard hardware store in the MERP area, acknowledged that there is an abundance of truck lots in the area. But he argued that a major shopping center or theater complex would dramatically increase traffic.
"We used to be a bedroom community," said Pizzorno, who has lived in North Montebello since 1970. "(Redevelopment) will create a great negative impact for the (South Montebello) neighborhood."
Leaders of Citizens for a Better Government disagree. Referring to the three ballot measures in their slogan, "Progress Is as Easy as One, Two Three," they say that tearing down many of the 444 truck lots and storage sites and replacing them with mini-malls and shopping centers in South Montebello would make the area more livable.
Proponents, saying that the city is facing budget deficits that range as high as $1.4 million, claim commercial redevelopment in South Montebello could help finance vital city services such as police and fire protection.
"This is the best idea," committee member Rosemarie Vasquez said. "It's the right thing to do."
About a dozen volunteers have been meeting for the past two weeks to schedule fund-raising events. An information center at Grant Rea Park is scheduled to open today. A $50-per-person fund-raising cocktail party is scheduled Wednesday at Vasquez's Malone Drive home.
Meanwhile, Citizens Against Eminent Domain is expected to meet tonight at the Montebello Inn to officially begin campaigning during the three-week stretch until election day. The group, which has put up a handful of red and black signs condemning the proposed ordinances, plans to distribute hundreds of additional signs and flyers this week.
Larry Salazar, who owns a Pico Rivera marketing company, said that his message against eminent domain in his neighborhood is simple and clear: "We don't need it and it's not good for Montebello."