That a single piece of paper could ward off bulldozers sounded too good to be true for scores of homeowners who crammed Long Beach City Hall in late 1992.
Despite pledges of urban renewal, many homeowners refused to have their property included in the city's Central Redevelopment Area, for fear that urban planners would force them out of their homes and find another use for their land.
But others who had also objected to the redevelopment plan suddenly changed their minds when officials said there was a simpler way to safeguard their property against demolition.
Next week, for a select group of property owners, the redevelopment agency will be making good on its word.
Ninety homeowners within a six-block area will soon be mailed applications for a pilot program that automatically exempts individual homes from eminent domain proceedings if a visual inspection determines that the property is not blighted.
Unique among redevelopment strategies in the state, the project will issue "certificates of conformance" to properties that pass cursory inspection. Besides relieving homeowners' fears that their property could be demolished, it is also touted as an innovative approach to restoring property values while encouraging vigilant home maintenance.
All that homeowners will have to do is complete and mail in a short application form, then make sure their yards look tidy from the sidewalk. If an inspector for the city's redevelopment agency spots no problems such as overgrown weeds, boats parked on the front lawn or graffiti, then property owners will receive--at no charge--the legal equivalent of bulldozer repellent.
If enough people apply, the program may be expanded to include all 30,000 homes within the city's Central Redevelopment Area. And though they are not guaranteed to receive one, businesses in the area and owners of apartment buildings with more than four units may also apply for the certificate. But like other certificate holders, they will have to keep their property blight-free for at least 40 years, until the agency's powers dissolve.
Some homeowners within the project area have reservations about the program's implications. Carrol Goddard, for example, says she worries that some of her neighbors' homes in one of the city's historic districts might not pass inspection.
"What are we going to do about these people who first of all don't care about their property?" said Goddard, president of the Willmore City Heritage Assn., a homeowners group in the redevelopment area. "Maybe the people can't maintain them, but we don't want [the properties] destroyed."
But redevelopment officials say that their interest lies primarily in reviving nearby commercial strips, and that they currently have no plans to alter any of the area's residential property. In fact, they say the only reason houses were included in the redevelopment territory was to broaden the project's tax base to fund improvements along Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. They added that the agency has never used its power of eminent domain on residential properties.
Redevelopment projects work by taking any increases in property taxes in their districts and investing the funds in developments in the area. Eventually commercial and even residential projects are leveled in favor of new buildings. New projects can tap redevelopment funds.
State redevelopment officials say Long Beach appears to be the first city to experiment with conformance certificates even though other cities offer similar protection against eminent domain through zoning ordinances.
But Alan Burks, who heads an advisory committee of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and helped craft the certificate program, says the project is especially innovative because it fights urban decay while bolstering property values.
When homeowners in redevelopment areas try to sell their property, Burks said, even a remote threat of eminent domain can lower their market price. He said the new certificates could help property owners who decide to sell.
The program has sparked interest among a group of North Long Beach homeowners who also face incorporation into a separate redevelopment area, the city's eighth. A member of the group said its leaders will watch to see how well the certificates answer residents' concerns.
Of course, interest is also swelling within the central project area, which is so far the only redevelopment area in the city to include large residential neighborhoods.
Project manager Richard Gonzalez, an analyst for the redevelopment agency, said he has received but not yet acted on several requests for the certificates since the area's boundaries were drawn up in 1993 in response to damage from the 1992 riots.
Once the applications are sent out early next week, Gonzalez said the next question is how homeowners will respond. He said the agency may end up extending the deadline to return the forms beyond 60 days.
"We just want to make it as simple as possible for people to meet the criteria," he said.