Group Opposing Eminent Domain Dealt Setback

Times Staff Writer

As voters prepare to go to the polls on a referendum on eminent domain Tuesday, a citizens group opposed to the city's bid for the right to condemn property in South Montebello has been dealt a setback in court.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Miriam A. Vogel last week denied an attorney's request that she invalidate two environmental impact reports measuring the possible impact of commercial development in the mostly industrial section of Montebello.

The court decision came just one week before voters decide on three ballot measures that would give the Community Redevelopment Agency limited condemnation power in the South Montebello Industrial Redevelopment Project (SMIRP) and the Montebello Economic Revitalization Project (MERP).

Spokesman for Opposition

"I was shocked at the judge's ruling," said Dale L. Gronemeier, who is representing Montebello Cares, the anti-eminent domain group.

Gronemeier argued that the $30,000-impact reports, prepared last year by a private consulting firm, were incomplete because, among other things, they did not take into account the countywide impact of relocating large numbers of truck-related businesses out of South Montebello.

He also argued that the city should have spelled out which businesses in the two redevelopment areas would be included in the city's designation of "undesirable uses."

City officials have said that they need the power of eminent domain in South Montebello to replace the area's more than 444 truck lots and storage sites with supermarkets, mini-malls and movie theaters.

Commercial revitalization, they argue, would provide the city with tax revenue. They add, however, that no specific plan has been drawn up.

Under state law, local redevelopment agencies have the power to purchase industrial, commercial and residential property that is considered blighted and sell it to large developers to promote commercial revitalization. The agencies, however, must purchase the property at a fair market value.

Vogel said that Gronemeier's arguments that the city should identify which businesses would be affected are "pure speculation. Your case is without merit. This is denied."

"I thought we had a slam dunk case," Gronemeier said after the short hearing. "Sometimes, as a lawyer, you think you have a clear winner in a case. But I guess the judge saw it differently."

Revitalization Predicted

Members of Montebello Cares, along with members of South Montebello Area Residents Together and Citizens Against Eminent Domain, are campaigning to persuade voters to reject the city's plan to gain condemnation power.

Supporters say that if voters approve three ballot measures, South Montebello residents will enjoy a revitalized community, and the city will be able to provide increased city services, such as police and fire protection.

But opponents--mainly South Montebello residents, businessmen and local truckers--claim that South Montebello will suffer from overdevelopment along with increased traffic, pollution and resident displacement.

Opponents say the threat that city services might suffer without development in South Montebello is a scare tactic to convince voters, and the pledge that residents will not lose their homes is unrealistic.

Proposition A would authorize eminent domain in the 361-acre Montebello Economic Revitalization Project. The project 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 B would authorize eminent domain in the 286-acre South Montebello Industrial Redevelopment Project, which includes all property between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Santa Fe railroad tracks.

Proposition C would prohibit any future agency from amending or repealing the ordinances without voter approval.

City Administrator Joseph Goeden said the ordinances also prohibit the agency from taking most residential properties. He said that of the 360 housing units in the two areas, only 19 apartments in the MERP area and four units in the SMIRP area would be affected.

Council Members Attacked

Since last year, a majority of City Council members have come under attack by residents and community leaders in South Montebello because of their support of the use of eminent domain in those two areas. Council members also serve as board members of the redevelopment agency.

Four of five council members voted Nov. 28 to give the Redevelopment Agency eminent domain powers. But a successful petition drive early this year forced the ordinances to a vote on Tuesday.

Mayor William O. Nighswonger and council members Kathy Salazar, Art Payan and Arnold Glasman, who voted for the two ordinances--now called Propositions A and B-- were even targeted in a failed recall effort earlier this year.

Only Councilman Edward Pizzorno objects to the use of eminent domain, and has been actively campaigning against passage of the ballot measures.

Goeden said that the city must address long-running budget problems. He said that the other two options--raising certain municipal taxes and cutting city services--would have to be considered if voters reject the three ballot measures.

Judge Vogel's decision to uphold the validity of the environmental impact reports, Goeden said, was proof that the city has been careful to weigh the effect of eminent domain on the community.

"I was confident all along that we would win that (court case)," Goeden said. "We've done as thorough a job as possible from the beginning.

He said that he hoped voters would also take the city's side in the eminent domain issue.

Questions for Voters

"It is up to the public now to make a decision that's going to have tremendous impact on the community" Goeden said. "Do we cut budgets, raise fees or expand the economic base (through an active redevelopment program)? That is the question that is before the voters."

But Larry Salazar, head of Citizens Against Eminent Domain, predicted that voters will choose to deny condemnation power to the city. Larry Salazar is not related to Kathy Salazar

"Everywhere I go, people say that eminent domain is not good for the city," said Larry Salazar, a resident of South Montebello who plans to run for city government in November. "We've been saying all along that the community is against it.

"I don't believe the election is going to be close at all," he continued. "It's going to be a landslide."

Meanwhile, the campaigns have been heating up, with members of both sides claiming at the last council meeting that they have been harassed by opponents.

Ralph Ramirez, an eminent domain supporter, told the council that he received a "very communistic" letter allegedly from SMART organizers telling him to remove a campaign sign from his front lawn.

The letter read: "We have noticed that you have signs in front of your property, which we do not approve of, you should study the fact and go deeper than what the city wants you to believe . . . My advice to you is to take down your signs and join SMART."

"So I put up a 4-by-8-foot sign instead," Ramirez told the council.

Cecelia Cesarez, an eminent domain foe, told the council that she had been verbally berated by council members Payan, Glasman and Salazar for campaigning against the three measures and for collecting signatures for the recall.

"You three council members confronted me at Ralphs and intimidated me," Cesarez said. "I had to step back in fear."

After anti-eminent domain organizer Shirley Garcia began criticizing Kathy Salazar for describing parts of South Montebello as blighted and "ghetto-like," Nighswonger, Payan and Glasman jumped in and scolded Garcia for singling out the councilwoman.

"What I'm asking is that you try not to be as vicious as you have been," Nighswonger told Garcia. "Please try to control your remarks."

Both sides had scheduled rallies and last-minute campaigning over the weekend.

Citizens Against Eminent Domain, which has raised more than $9,600, were expecting about 500 people to attend a rally on a vacant lot at Montebello and Olympic Boulevards today, Larry Salazar said.

He has invited Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), who is sponsoring a bill to limit eminent domain powers, to attend the noon event. SMART has raised $3,100 to finance their campaign.

And members of Citizens for a Better Montebello, who have raised $4,300, say they will continue to drive their "Information Center" truck to various locations and pass out flyers, buttons and posters.

Organizers also said that they will continue to man phones, calling voters and asking them to support eminent domain.

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