MONTEBELLO — 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."
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.