POMONA — It was a classic case of fighting city hall: More than 500 sign-carrying, chanting neighbors turned out in a mass protest to save their homes from condemnation.
Eight hours later, they had won their battle.
They had picketed on the streets for nearly four hours Monday night against a plan by the Redevelopment Agency to take their homes through eminent domain to clear the area for commercial development. Later, at a public hearing on the issue, the protesters gave four hours of testimony to the City Council, which also serves as the Redevelopment Agency board of directors.
"You are trying to force us into forsaking our dreams by imposing a cold and ruthless condemnation," said Denise Chavez, who lives in the area known as the Patritti tract. "Is getting rid of the people your idea of benefiting Pomona?" she asked.
After dozens of similar rebukes, council members acquiesced and about midnight voted unanimously not to allow the agency to take the homes.
"We're going to have to build around them," Councilwoman Donna Smith said during a 10-minute break about midway through the hearing. "I can't in good conscience vote for eminent domain."
Moments before the vote was taken, Councilman Vernon Weigand told the gathering: "People in such masses pleaded with us to allow them to continue living in the neighborhood without a cloud of uncertainty over their lives. I don't think that's too much to ask."
Although the decision appears to scuttle a redevelopment plan to convert the 70-acre tract built in the late 1950s into prime commercial land, it also means that the largely low-income neighborhood of 7,000 will not be forced to surrender homes that many say they have worked most of their lives to improve.
Developers will now have to negotiate with individual homeowners, instead of the Redevelopment Agency, to buy property in the area that Councilman Mark Nymeyer called "a potential gold mine for commercial and retail development."
Since September, when the council postponed action on the issue because many of the homeowners said they did not understand it, 21 explanatory sessions with various neighborhood groups have been held, including three in Spanish.
City officials told the residents at the sessions that surrendering their land could benefit the city by generating revenue, that each would receive relocation benefits and that their property would be purchased by the Redevelopment Agency at appraised market value.
Before the vote was taken, some in the audience accused the council of racism (the neighborhood is largely Latino and black) and of allowing big-money developers to dictate their actions.
"There is millions of dollars talking here," said Martin Chavez, husband of Denise Chavez. "And please don't think we don't know it, OK?"
Jesse Henderson, another homeowner and co-chairman of the Patritti Tract Homeowners' Assn., which was formed to protest the city's plan for the neighborhood, was among the most vocal on the racial issue.
"You have a hidden agenda which most of the people, especially the minorities, don't know of," he said. "And that is your apartheid plan through redevelopment to get rid of certain groups of people."
The comments drew applause from the audience, but anger from some members of the council.
Several speakers, including Henderson, added emphasis to their statements by invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time Monday.
But Councilman Jay Gaulding told the crowd he was irritated by the racial references.
"I think to stir up again that the basis of this whole thing is racial is an abomination," Gaulding said. "Somebody that said that ought to go back and apologize."
The picketing and the hearing testimony often focused on the pride the neighbors said they took in their homes, as well as on community bonds they have formed with one another.
"It's going to be hard for us," said Hector Palacios, 16, as he marched with others along Mission Boulevard late Monday afternoon. "Good friends like these are hard to find."
Elderly and Handicapped
Jack Mansfield, 61, said a number of neighborhood residents are elderly or handicapped. "At the time of our lives when all of us senior citizens should be enjoying our hard-earned rights to peace and tranquility in the house and area of our choice," he told the council, "you are telling us to move away and start anew. What right do you have to destroy the peace of our minds?"
Many of those who spoke at Monday night's hearing said they were suspicious of the city's motives.
Among the protesters was a woman who said she had been mistreated by the agency in a previous redevelopment purchase. Beverly Vcelak, who lives in the Patritti tract, said she was not eager to deal with the agency again.