Labor site price disputed

The city put in the minimum $18,000 bid for the Day Labor Site in Laguna Canyon owned by Caltrans, but state Sen. Tom Harman (R-35th District) said he wants the property pulled off the market.

Harman, who represents the city in the state legislature, blasted Laguna’s use of the property for a day labor center, as well as the minimum bid set by Caltrans. He announced Wednesday that he intends to use his position in the legislature to ensure the state gets an unspecified “fair price” for the property or keep it.

Caltrans put the site up for bid for $18,000 after an independent appraisal came in close to the valuation by a city-hired appraiser, according to city officials.

Harman accused the city of “rigging” the appraisal by announcing that it intended to pre-zone the parcel as open space, blocking any commercial use of the property, on which Caltrans had based an earlier appraisal of $1.26 million.

“The original Caltrans appraisal was a total fiction,” City Manager Ken Frank said. “It had no basis in reality. The parcel is a narrow strip of dirt with no zoning and no potential for development. The required setbacks would eat up the whole property.”

Caltrans had no takers at the first offering of the parcel for $990,000 and a second appraisal was commissioned.

Frank said he hadn’t seen the second Caltrans appraisal, but it is his understanding that the report closely mirrored the report by the city’s appraiser, who concluded that the highest and best use of the property was open space.

Both appraisers were American Institute of Appraisers certified professionals.

“This was no give-away,” Frank said.

As for Harman’s complaint that the city’s use of the site as a day labor center was a waste of taxpayer’s money that should “outrage” Laguna’s residents, Orange County Federal Court Judge Gregory Munoz disagreed. He ruled that plaintiffs in the law suit against the city had failed to prove that money Laguna spent on the center was an illegal expenditure or waste of public money as they had charged.

“I would assure Sen. Harman that at least 90% of Laguna Beach residents, including some very conservative ones, are totally in support of the city’s use of the site,” Frank said.

The site was designated as the only area where day laborers may congregate to solicit jobs, at the request of residents, particularly those in North Laguna.

Frank does not believe the use will change if the city is the winning bidder for the property.

Caltrans opened the mandatory 60-day bidding period Dec. 18.

State law requires the parcel be offered to certain public agencies. The city’s bid was mailed Jan. 9.

“They have received the letter, but they have to keep the bidding open to see if anybody else responds,” Frank said. “If not, we will buy the property. If another public agency bids on it — and I can’t imagine who that would be — then we would have to discuss it.”

In the event of multiple offers, the agencies would bid against one another.

“But I think it is 99% sure that $18,000 will be sufficient to purchase the parcel,” Frank told the council at the Jan. 8 meeting.

The city’s bid for the almost 17,000 square-foot parcel was contained in a letter mailed to Caltrans, one day after the council authorized Frank in a closed session to submit the offer.

Although Deputy City Attorney Hans Van Ligten said no reportable action had been taken in the closed session, Frank eschewed the legal loophole that no report is necessary until the action is completed. In other words: when or if the bid is accepted.

“I suggest we [announce the bid] because it will become public as soon as my letter to Caltrans is delivered,” Frank said at the meeting.

Frank’s announcement came in response to a query posed by former School Board member Karl Schwarz during the public communication period at the beginning of the council meeting.

Any member of the public can speak on any subject not on the regular agenda.

Schwarz’s interest was piqued by the closed session agenda, which included the possible acquisition of the day labor parcel, as well as the existing litigation against the city by Eileen Garcia, a staunch opponent of the city’s use of the site for a day labor center.

He complimented the city attorney, the city manager and the City Council for their “robust” defense against the Garcia lawsuit.

“This is not an immigration issue, it is local action to benefit residents,” Schwarz said.

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