Sandag accused of eminent domain abuse

“We absolutely need this. We have buses laying over in eight different locations."

The property is between Union and State streets and A and B streets
  • The property is between Union and State streets and A and B streets

The San Diego Association of Governments is considering using eminent domain to take an entire downtown block. The land owners say they are concerned about what the agency plans to do with it, since the plan ranges from a parking lot with bathrooms to a multi-use residential high-rise.

An attorney who represents owners of two parcels called the staff plan “a bait and switch,” pointing out that using eminent domain to take privately owned land and handing it to a private developer is not allowed. “We have two very different visions of the project and no idea of what’s being done,” said Jacqueline Vinaccia, who represents the San Diego County Bar Association.

Sandag staff says the land, the block between Union and State streets east and west, and A and B streets, will be used as a much-needed bus layover facility. But Richard Chavez, the project manager, says the organization has been asked to consider developing a building with residences and offices above the layover — and putting Sandag offices in the new building.

Private, mixed-use developers won’t make a proposal for that building until they are certain that Sandag owns the land, Chavez said. He estimates the bus layover project cost at between $75 million and $85 million.

The six parcels that make up the block, mainly a parking lot with 164 spaces, an auto-repair shop, and two small commercial buildings, are owned by criminal defense lawyer Chuck Goldberg, King Stahlman’s family, the Townsend Family trust, the McClellan Trust, and by two limited liability corporations set up by the San Diego County Bar Association. The parking lot is run by Ace Parking and the bar association reported about $350,000 in income from their part in 2015.

The Stahlman family and Goldberg are interested in selling their land — for about $9 million and $3 million. McClellan uses the red brick building on Union Street to store cars and has an offer of $3 million. He isn’t interested in selling — nor is the bar association, which gets “significant” income from the two parcels. Sandag’s appraiser valued those properties at just under $12 million, according to Sandag documents.

Goldberg and McClellan did not return calls for information and comment.

Scott Ward, who runs A Street Auto Repair, says the shop has been in the family for three generations. The shop has six employees, and he’s getting ready to start looking for a new place.

“They’re developing so much downtown that mom-and-pop shops have to leave,” he said. “So I don’t know when it will happen, but they’re telling me it will.”

The bar association and the Townsend trust are not interested in selling the land and have begun to look at how Sandag chose the land in the first place, how it certified its environmental review before the project was defined, and, most of all, they’re trying to figure out what Sandag is trying to do.

“Sandag has not articulated an actual project that can be a public use, and without it, cannot rely on eminent domain without a cognizable project,” said Vinaccia of the bar association. “There are indications that it’s a bus stopover with a small building for bathrooms but there are documents that show they plan to bring in a developer to build for private use.”

Sandag’s lawyer said that the ground is for public use, but the air and subsurface rights can be used for other purposes.

“We believe Sandag’s true intent is to use this land for a private development, which is not an appropriate use for eminent domain,” Vinaccia added.

In November, the regional association voted to delay eminent domain action until staff met with the resistant owners to try and negotiate a deal they'd find acceptable.

Sandag has been working on the effort since 2011. In June 2016, the Sandag board approved the environmental document for the downtown bus layover part — a parking lot with a small building that’s a restroom for bus drivers.

Staff estimates that 400 buses will use the stop on every weekday, with that number expected to rise to 700 in the near future. Right now, the buses are idling on city streets, near porta-potties placed there for drivers.

“We absolutely need this,” said Paul Jablonsky of the Metropolitan Transit Service. “We have buses laying over in eight different locations [downtown]. We have porta-potties all over the city and we have to move them. It’s just not the way to run this.”

Sandag documents indicate the agency anticipates 300,000 square feet of residential use, 300,000 square feet of office, 20,000 square feet of street-facing retail in a building up to 400 feet tall.

The offers reflect that the land would be used for a development project, not for a parking lot, Sandag lawyer Andrew Rauch said.

“Our appraisers have said the highest and best use for these properties is a high-rise development,” Rauch said. “We’re offered compensation to them as if they were in private development.”

But Sandag regional transportation committee chair (and San Marcos mayor) Jim Desmond said he is a little uneasy about the plan.

“I’m concerned we’re mixing private development with eminent domain,” Desmond said. “We should not be taking from one commercial entity and giving it to another commercial entity.”

San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said she had some concerns about using eminent domain — especially since her district started the process for the mid-coast trolley project at Morena Boulevard. Sandag initiated eminent domain there and then backed off.

“Definitely, the buses, maybe the Sandag offices, but when we get into the development…I’m not sure that’s in the public interest,” Zapf said. “I don’t remember eminent domain being discussed and I feel like this is being rammed through right now.”

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SANDAG is an extralegal and antidemocratic 800-pound gorilla. Why can't they pay a fair market price to the owners who want to sell and create their stated "bus layover" space, and leave the other owners alone? The only explanation is that they're so used to lacking accountability they no longer have any sense of right or wrong.

No other government entity would try to get away with a tiny project to build a simple rest stop to morph into a massive mixed use, private business venture. That it would profit even more from going into business for itself by robbing others of their property rights should concern us all.

Stunts like this demonstrate the necessity of defeating this beast. There's no reason for this extra layer of self-serving bureaucracy to continue to exist.

Anyone who has followed the stuttering story of the proposed reopening of our eastern rail link for freight hauling will see parallels here. MTS is out of control in the strictest sense. Oh, it has a governing board made up of local office holders, and it should be well-run. But it isn't, and the rubber-stamping of proposals made by the MTS boss, Jablonsky, is sickening. There has been no true oversight of that operation in many years. Jablonsky, one of the highest paid bureaucrats in the county, seems to get his way on everything. This is just one more chapter, or call it an episode if you prefer, in the saga of MTS in the 21st century. Oh, and don't expect the situation to improve. On its current trajectory, MTS will get worse.

San Diego Reader articles are always so amusing... they always follow the same pattern:

  1. Something new is being planned
  2. This new thing is bad because it is different than the way it is now
  3. Everyday people are the ones losing to some big loosely defined enemy
  4. Luckily some hero filed (or is about to file) a lawsuit to stop the injustice

... in this case:

  1. New Bus layover station and mixed use building
  2. Eyesores will be bought out and destroyed (but using eminent domain!)
  3. The bar association and some family trust are valiantly resisting certain doom to their livelyhoods
  4. Luckily some brave decision makers are out there are wary

What anyone who doesn't have an incentive to scare you would tell you:

The port-a-potties downtown for bus drivers are an eyesore. Stalled buses all over make driving downtown annoying to drive through. This block is a largely undeveloped eyesore. Most of the spaces on the lot appear unleased or add little value. SANDAG could potentially save on rent by building their own building. God forbid there be a revenue stream created by using the land to it's full potential by adding housing... something that would clearly be to the public's benefit in the city. There is no straightforward way to split these small parcels to preserve ownership while also allowing for the best use of the land that was researched by SANDAG.

Not everything is a conspiracy. Not every new thing is bad. Reader articles are redundant.

You are forgetting the rights of property owners. You may not like it, but they own it. Our country was built on property rights. We do not have the Duke of El Cajon and the Baron of Chula Vista who own it all and decide what to do with it. At least, that was the original idea.

And here you are, reading and commenting again!

Maybe you don't fully grasp the value of a free press. Newspapers (and TV and radio stations) are of little value if they limit their output to entertainment and/or feel-good reporting. While you have analyzed the style and format of investigative articles and blog posts, the fact that they follow a pattern doesn't mean that they are of no value. The public at large will never know of many of these matters unless they read about them, or hear about them. And that ignorance is seldom bliss. Without some public scrutiny many miscarriages of justice go unchallenged, and political corruption can flourish with no bounds. Today the Reader is one place where abuses are reported with regularity, the traditional print media in the county having abdicated their responsibilites.

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