Eminent domain case looms over Jamboree project

Sometimes it's hard to imagine 20 years down the road. Will the Back Bay be dredged? The Great Park built?

In three decades the city of Newport Beach foresees gridlock, especially at the intersection of Jamboree Road and the 73 Freeway. City leaders envision so many red taillights that they want to widen the road there.

But to do that, they must build on private property. Karen Dabby and her husband, Frank, own some of that property, and they're not buying the city's argument. Or selling, as it were.

"We feel their offer was ridiculous," Dabby said of the city's $452,000 offer for the 0.13 acres of land the couple own on the edge of a shopping center. The city needs the piece of land to complete its widening of the Jamboree Road bridge across the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway, according to a city report.

The Newport Beach City Council is anticipated to give final approval Tuesday for its attorney to begin eminent domain proceedings against the couple and their shopping center. The action brings up the question of when the city is justified in seizing land and when should a property owner resist.

"Given today's traffic I'd have to fully support the landlord," said Mort Nistanaki, 46, the owner of Conroy's Flowers, which fronts Jamboree from the shopping center. He waved toward an empty intersection on a weekday afternoon. Nistanaki said the construction dollars should be spent at worse locations.

But the city's report about the intersection says that it will perform at a "D" level on the Caltrans service report card by 2030. And to take advantage of available county government funds, the city needs to start the construction soon.

"We're going forward with eminent domain only because we need the property," City Atty. David Hunt said in an interview. "But it doesn't mean we can't still negotiate with the property owner."

The city hasn't tried hard enough to negotiate, said the Dabby's attorney, Chuck Krolikowski of Newmeyer & Dillion in Newport Beach.

"We don't think they really spent the time," Krolikowski said. "It's our right to claim more compensation."

Because it appears the parties cannot settle out of court, Hunt said Newport Beach will make a deposit of what it considers fair market value and it will file a motion to take possession of the land.

"But I'm always hopeful to get to a settlement," Hunt said. "Why spend money fighting over something if you can come to an agreement?"

The time and money spent would be borne in part by taxpayers, who are already struggling to meet rising city legal costs. Recent battles over drug treatment facilities and other cases have swelled the city attorney's expenses.

"It's generally a business decision," said Krolikowski, who has tried eminent domain cases for 14 years. Krolikowski said that municipalities have to decide at what point it's worth the cost to fight.

"Sometimes public agencies have a hard time doing that," he said.

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