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Cypress Church Backers Try to Force Property Referendum

Law: Nearly 5,000 signatures are submitted after the city condemned the congregation's land to pave the way for a revenue-rich Costco.

June 28, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Cypress citizens group on Wednesday turned in petitions with nearly 5,000 signatures in an effort to force a referendum that could stop the city from taking 18 acres of prime redevelopment property from a church and selling it to Costco.

The bid for a citywide vote on the controversial chunk of land is the latest episode in the drama between Cypress officials and Cottonwood Christian Center, a dispute that has drawn national attention. The conflict pits a city's redevelopment efforts and thirst for tax revenue against property rights and religious freedom.

Cypress City Atty. Bill Wynder said the proposed referendum may not be eligible for the ballot, even if the group gathered the necessary 2,300 signatures. Eminent domain actions that force the sale of land, unlike routine council votes, are not subject to the referendum process, he said.

"We're not terribly worried," Wynder said. "It's part of [the church's] grand strategy to attack the city through as many surrogates as possible."

Earlier this week, Cottonwood church attorneys filed a request for a preliminary injunction in federal court to prevent the city from condemning the property at Katella Avenue and Walker Street, near the Los Alamitos Race Course.

Citizens for Property Rights, made up mostly of Cottonwood congregants who live in Cypress, was formed after the City Council voted unanimously last month to condemn the undeveloped site, where the 4,000-member church planned a sprawling complex.

Leaders of the new committee disagree with the city attorney's opinion on the legality of a special election, saying there is nothing in the state code that exempts condemnation from voters' appeal.

"The city doesn't believe in private property rights," said Scott Aanonson, a spokesman for the citizens committee. "Hopefully, they'll respect our right to vote."

Committee members said about 250 volunteers, along with five paid workers, collected 4,760 signatures throughout the city over the last three weeks. They also mailed fliers to 12,000 homes.

City Atty. Wynder also said he'll question the validity of the petitions themselves, because activists, in presenting them to voters, attached only the eminent domain resolution passed by the council and not all the supporting reference material.

However, residents accused the city of purposely dragging its feet in giving them the 60 pages of material, which came about a week after it was requested. And working under a 30-day deadline, they simply couldn't wait on the city. Thursday was the last day to turn in the signatures.

"It's just outrageous," said Mark W. Bucher, an attorney and committee member. "They refused to give us the material in a timely fashion, and then they want to throw out the petitions because we don't have that material."

In any case, Bucher said city officials should not try to find legal means to fight the referendum.

"If they try to stand on a legal technicality, they are slapping the nearly 5,000 voters in the face who signed this petition."

City Councilman Tim Keenan said the ballot box is not the proper way to solve such problems.

"It's clear that what these folks are doing is politics," Keenan said. "They've raised serious money. Are we going to work to resolve the issue, or are we going to play politics?"

Committee leaders declined to specify their finances but said they'll report them by the next required deadline.

Amid the lawsuits and petition drives, city officials and church leaders have been looking elsewhere in Cypress for property that might suit Cottonwood.

Still, Keenan said the church's tactics have cost it goodwill in the city. If the issue came up for a vote, "I feel confident that the church would get run out of town on a rail," he said.

About the only thing city officials and Cottonwood supporters agree on is that no precedent exists in state law on whether eminent domain decisions can be appealed by referendum, and the outcome of all the legal maneuvers will be watched throughout the nation.

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