Eminent domain raises debate stakes for council candidates | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Eminent domain raises debate stakes for council candidates

Susan Wood

South Lake Tahoe leaders may be contemplating eminent domain to get the convention center complex built, but its six city council candidates vying for three seats on the Redevelopment Agency board for the November election would rather it not get to that point.

The agency on Tuesday took action on its intent to use the controversial government practice in case negotiations break down between Lake Tahoe Development Co. and the property owners who have held out on selling land on five parcels.

Twenty-nine property owners have negotiated to sell with the developer in the 11.36-acre site between Highway 50, Cedar, Friday and Stateline avenues that will be home to a city-owned convention center managed by the developer, two condominium hotels and a village green.

The city has set aside up to $8.5 million in acquisition costs that developers Randy Lane of Stateline and John Serpa of Carson City would reimburse. The agreement between the city and developer says the latter would “advance” the money to get the project going for its May 2007 groundbreaking.

One residence and seven businesses are attached to the parcels. They include Lakeside Landing, Shirt Stop, Pub Tahoe, Taco Bell, Paradise Timeshare, Shoreline Ski and Snowboard and Union 76 station.

The business owners and displaced residents would be dealt with through a newly development relocation plan that has set aside $1.6 million for the venture.

Jim Hickey, who runs the Union 76 station, said he’s met with the developer but no agreement has been made. He’s on the lease with the oil company until 2009 and under his contract has “the right of refusal to buy the land.” The provision called the Petroleum Marketing Protection Act protects station owners from being displaced involuntarily.

Candidates weigh in

Real estate agent Michael Phillips, innkeeper Jerry Birdwell, retired teacher Bill Crawford, Councilwoman Kathay Lovell, businessman Tom Davis and recreation advocate Tom Wendell said they wouldn’t advocate the city heading to court under eminent domain, which is the legal taking of private property for public use. One property owner has pledged a legal fight if the city uses the measure.

Birdwell, a longtime lawyer and judge, said it’s standard for parties in the situation to “hire a voice to represent them at all levels” and remained optimistic the dealings would be worked out outside of court.

Even in voting for the city to use the power, Lovell agreed.

“Only one parcel has objected so I don’t know if it’s an issue. I think this is a little premature. They can still negotiate in the next couple of weeks,” said Lovell, who is rerunning for her seat on the council. The agency board member said eminent domain is “not anything we take lightly.”

She viewed the one objection expressed at the public meeting of a good “indicator of how much the project has gone forward.”

But that may be too much for candidate Crawford to hear. He is steadfastly against using city resources for a private developer’s benefit and turned to the city community survey to make his case. The convention center ranked lower than other items as priority items.

“If I had one thing to say, it’s eminent domain destroys the people’s control,” he said. “It should only be used for schools, roads and hospitals.”

But Davis sees the proceedings as a much needed project for the future of the town’s tourism.

“If not for eminent domain, there wouldn’t be a highway,” he said. Still, Davis tempered the enthusiasm with a nervousness about “taking someone’s business” and “taking someone’s house.”

The situation sparked more questions for Wendell, who wanted to know “how the public’s interests would be better served,” “where else could the money go,” and “would legal costs be recovered?”

He believes the development would make an improvement.

“The area does look like heck,” he said.

The “toughest part” for Phillips is knowing the decision has been made for him on a matter that would come before him many times during the course of serving the city.

He would like to see mediation at all costs.

“Everybody has a price,” he said.

He would simply want to know the bottom-line cost to get everybody on board.

“I don’t think this is a surprise to anybody that it’s come to this. I can’t see redevelopment slowing down. I just wonder why they didn’t use eminent domain for its city offices,” Phillips said.

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