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Proposal for Eminent Domain Triggers Fears in Montebello

June 26, 1988|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

MONTEBELLO — A proposal to give the city's Redevelopment Agency the power to condemn property in two areas has left some residents afraid that they may lose their homes to business development.

A City Council decision on the proposal is still months away, but city officials are acting now to assure homeowners that their property will be immune from eminent domain.

"I'm concerned that the people who own property in town are being scared into believing that their residences are being threatened by eminent domain, which is not the case at all," Councilman Art Payan said in a recent interview.

Payan said he and other council members have received numerous calls from residents who "are becoming quite scared over the issue." Under eminent domain law, government officials have the right to take private property for the public good as long as they fairly compensate the owner.

Would Protect Housing

In response, the five council members indicated at a recent meeting that single-family, owner-occupied housing would be protected from condemnation. But that protection will not be made formal at least until September, when the council is scheduled to consider whether to give the condemnation powers to the Redevelopment Agency.

City officials say the agency needs eminent domain power to quickly assemble parcels of land to attract developers and improve Montebello's economic base.

Meanwhile, residential and business groups in the city are examining how the redevelopment proposal might affect them.

South Montebello Area Residents Together, a recently formed group of residents and business owners, has not adopted a formal position on the proposal. But Chairman William M. Molinari, a former councilman, said he opposes it because condemnation powers could be extended. He said another concern is that small businesses could be forced to relocate to make way for larger redevelopment projects.

"Suppose a major development comes in and the only thing standing in the way is one or two single-family homes," Molinari said. "The possibility is there. Nothing prevents the council from expanding the project areas, or taking residential property at future dates. It can be done without a vote of the people."

To extend the condemnation powers once the plan is approved, the city would have to go through a months-long amendment process, which would include a public hearing. Actual condemnations must be approved by a four-fifths vote of the council.

No Formal Position

Philip Wagner, president of the Montebello Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said chamber representatives have been meeting with city officials but the organization has not taken a formal position on the proposal.

"Eminent domain has been a valuable tool in many communities," Wagner acknowledged.

Montebello has three redevelopment districts.

For the past year, city officials have been preparing the proposal to provide the Redevelopment Agency with condemnation powers in the 287-acre South Montebello Industrial Redevelopment Project area and the 332-acre Montebello Economic Revitalization Project area.

The Redevelopment Agency already has condemnation powers in the Montebello Hills Project, a largely residential and commercial district in the northern part of the city. But the Redevelopment Agency never has used eminent domain there, an official said.

City Administrator Joseph M. Goeden said the city needs eminent domain in all three areas to be able to guarantee its ability to assemble land for interested developers. Montebello is counting on future development, and the tax revenue it generates, to keep the city financially healthy, Goeden said. Neighboring cities, including Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs, have the power of eminent domain. Goeden said the city has lost several projects to other cities because it did not.

"Eminent domain is a tool, a tool that we don't have in our tool box that other cities do," Goeden said. "We're at a distinct disadvantage to attract good businesses . . . and we can't compete."

The South Montebello project area was formed in 1973. The area is mostly industrial but includes some residences and commercial property. The value of property in the zone has jumped from $52.7 million in 1973 to $160.5 million as of June 30, 1987, said Linda Payan, Montebello's economic development manager and Councilman Payan's wife.

Formed in 1982, the economic revitalization area covers central Montebello and stretches into the southern area of the city. The area is mostly industrial, with commercial property along Whittier Boulevard and some housing. Property values in the district have risen from $79.6 million to $119.9 million over the past five years, she said.

There are 25 single-family homes in the two areas, said city planner Paul Deibel, who did not know how many are owner occupied. In all, there are 374 residential units in the two areas, a city report said.

A proposal to give the Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain in the South Industrial Project area was voted down by the council in 1981 in the face of strong opposition from industrial firms and residential property owners.

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