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Caltrans pulls day-labor site from auction

Laguna Beach says it will zone the parcel for open space, reducing its value. Officials will meet to discuss differences.

July 22, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Caltrans has taken a controversial Laguna Beach property used as a day-labor center off the auction block after city officials vowed to zone it for open space, a designation that would significantly reduce its market value.

The land dispute in Laguna Beach, where most property is at a premium, centers on a 16,000-square-foot parcel that has served day laborers for nearly a decade, attracting numerous protesters.

City officials say the property has nearly no market value. Caltrans says the land off Laguna Canyon Road could fetch about $950,000 in a public auction.

The site has been targeted by anti-illegal immigration activists who oppose the city's support of the center, which helps immigrant laborers find work.

City officials say it keeps the workers from soliciting work on city streets and that the parcel's "highest value," in the words of City Manager Ken Frank, "is as a political football. It's a headache for [Caltrans], and they want to get rid of it.".

Caltrans disagrees.

"We look at fair-market value and take into consideration property that is surrounding the parcel," spokeswoman Pam Gorniak said.

The parcel is considered "light commercial" and was first put up for auction at nearly $1.3 million in May. She said it received one bid for $250,000, which was rejected as too low.

The second auction began last week but has been suspended because of the zoning dispute. Officials from the city and the state agency will meet this week in the hopes of resolving their differences, Frank and Gorniak said. The city's appraiser has valued the property at $7,000.

The use of the site has been debated since 2006 when anti-illegal immigration activist Eileen Garcia found records showing that the center was operating on state property.

State officials, saying they had not realized it belonged to them, then leased the land to the city for $420 a month.

Garcia, who says she opposes the center because some of the immigrant workers do not have work authorization, filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court in October alleging that the city is violating federal law by spending public funds to operate it.

Laguna Beach gives a nonprofit organization $25,000 annually, which is funneled to the center.

The lawsuit is pending.

Garcia said she hoped that the property could be made open space or, if not, then used by a business that pays property taxes. Caltrans, she says, "is aiding and abetting illegal aliens. They have been aware of this operation and they still allow it to proceed."

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