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By Shawn Raymundo

Emergency Shelter Coalition’s hopes of building a homeless shelter on land it recently purchased within San Clemente’s open space could be dashed as it now faces a challenge from the city, which is looking to acquire the property through eminent domain.

The nonprofit group had bought the 10-acre property located on the north side of Avenida Pico, opposite Calle del Cerro, from the Rancho San Clemente Business Park Association last January with the intent of constructing a shelter for the city’s homeless.

If the city gets its way, however, the land would be converted into a conservation easement meant to further prevent the Transportation Corridor Agencies from ever considering a toll road extension through the area—plans the TCA’s board of directors already voted to abandon earlier this month.

The city’s effort to acquire the land comes as the nonprofit group and the Business Park Association face a legal battle against a group of the business park’s tenants who are challenging the validity of the sale.

In a public hearing notice the city issued to the homeless advocacy group last week, the city stated that the council on Tuesday, April 7, intends to vote on adopting a resolution that could authorize the city to obtain the property for the purpose of preserving open space.

Citing the current public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, ESC President Ed Connor questioned the city’s need and urgency to get the resolution passed when the city’s Measure V ordinance is already meant to keep the property as open space.

“As the City well knows, there is absolutely no urgency or necessity requiring the City to proceed with the April 7th hearing on the Resolution in the face of ever-worsening coronavirus conditions in Orange County,” Connor wrote in a letter responding to the city’s notice.

“What is the possible urgency of voting on April 7 to condemn land that is currently undeveloped open space subject to strict open space ordinance that prohibits any non-open-space use, especially when the stated purpose of the Resolution is simply to keep the land as open space as the ordinance presently requires?” Connor asked in his letter.

Under San Clemente’s Measure V ordinance, any project proposing to develop on more than an acre of open space has to go to a vote of the people.

In his letter, dated March 27, Connor asks the city to postpone the public hearing on the proposed resolution to early June, giving ESC adequate time to craft a letter of objection.

“Given the fact that the law offices of ESC’s attorneys have been temporarily closed due to the coronavirus crisis, and since the City has only provided the bare minimum amount of advance notice of the hearing on the Resolution, ESC has not been able to complete that letter at this time and will be hard-pressed under the circumstances to complete it by the April 7th hearing date,” Connor wrote.

Speaking by phone with San Clemente Times on Monday, March 30, Mayor Dan Bane said that despite the recent vote by the TCA’s board to no longer pursue a southerly extension of the 241 Toll Road, the city wants contingencies in place should the agencies’ mind change in the future.

“In 20, 30, 40 years from now, we just want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to make sure a road doesn’t go there,” Bane said, adding that “if they ever decide to look at a road there again, we want to make sure a conservation easement is in place.”

This month, the TCA’s board of directors voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with a plan to have Los Patrones Parkway in Rancho Mission Viejo extend to the city limit at Avenida La Pata as an untolled, county-owned, arterial road.

Bane acknowledged that while the property is already protected by Measure V, a conservation easement would give the city the “highest level of protection” in dissuading any toll road extension.

“So good is great, but the highest and best protection is best, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said, comparing the Measure V ordinance to a conservation easement.

The remaining open space surrounding ESC’s property has already become a conservation easement, Bane noted. Back in September 2018, the city and the Marblehead Community Association entered into an environmental easement agreement to establish the 287 acres of land as eligible for natural-habitat-serving land.

The Marblehead Community Association “asked us to take it … they didn’t ask for any other consideration other than to be good stewards of the resource going forward,” Bane said.

Touching on Connor’s criticism of the urgent nature for the resolution, Bane said the idea of having the land in question become an easement has been a priority of the city “for a long time.”

The Business Park Association has noted that before entering into the sale agreement with ESC last fall, it had previously offered the land to the city bu had turned it down.

However, when news broke of the property being in escrow, the city of San Clemente, as well as Olen Commercial Properties, then expressed interest in purchasing the land for $20,000 if the sale had ever fallen through.

The business park sold the land to ESC for $19,500. According to the Association, the land had a low appraisal value of $12,000 because of the open space restrictions.

The city notes in its hearing notice that if the council adopts the resolution, eminent domain proceedings would commence in Superior Court within six months, wherein “the court will determine the amount of compensation to which you are entitled.”

The city council’s April 7 meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. inside the council chambers at 100 Avenida Presidio, San Clemente.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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