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By Shawn Raymundo
A decision on whether the city should condemn a homeless advocacy group’s land was postponed until late April, allowing the council to continue deliberating the proposal to acquire the property through eminent domain—an endeavor that could cost the city an estimated $100,000.
The city is looking to seize the pair of land parcels that Emergency Shelter Coalition had purchased from the Rancho San Clemente Business Park Association this past January and convert it into a conservation easement. Doing so, city officials have explained, could further prevent future attempts to extend the 241 Toll Road through San Clemente.
However, Ed Connor, the president of the nonprofit group that has sought to construct a shelter for San Clemente’s homeless, claims that the city’s intention is less about blocking a toll road and more about preventing a homeless shelter.
“I ask not to do this if it is not in the best interest of the city … in the interest of your homeless population,” Connor said during the council’s April 7 meeting, which was conducted via teleconference. “They’re not going to go away; we try to help them. You’re trying to stop us from doing that.”
Connor also warned that the city’s “true purpose” of stopping ESC from building a shelter is likely to come to light during eminent domain proceedings in court should the council decide to move ahead with condemning the land.
“I would indicate that there is no lawful, legitimate basis for this city to do what it wants to do,” Connor said. “There’s no need to condemn my property.”
Mayor Dan Bane later argued that he’s in support of acquiring the property, regardless of who owns the land, because it’s an “investment of the future of this watershed, to make sure a toll road doesn’t come through.”
Pending the council’s approval, the city has noted that eminent domain proceedings in Superior Court would likely commence within six months. At that time, the city has stated, “the court will determine the amount of compensation” to which ESC would be entitled.
The nonprofit group paid $19,500 to the Rancho SC Business Park for the two parcels, comprising 10 acres of open space land along Avenida Pico, opposite Calle del Cerro. The sale agreement for the property was initiated last fall and finalized in January, prompting a handful of the business park’s tenants to file a lawsuit challenging the deal between the Association and the Coalition.
According to City Attorney Scott Smith, the city could be looking at paying between $50,000 and $100,000 in legal costs for the eminent domain proceedings in addition to the price tag for the property.
Smith added that the city expects to pay the same price for the land that ESC paid. And putting the approximate legal fees at around the $80,000 median, the “city’s out-of-pocket is $100,000 to acquire title.”
The city submitted an offer to ESC on March 16 to purchase the land for $20,000, according to the city. One week later, a public hearing notice was sent to the nonprofit group, informing the organization that the council would be considering a resolution of necessity to acquire the land.
The city stated that although Connor did contact the city regarding the proposition to buy the land, “the offer has not been accepted and agreement has not been reached with the Owner. Therefore it is necessary to acquire the necessary interest by eminent domain.”
During deliberations, Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson expressed concern for condemning the property, believing that the use of eminent domain during ongoing litigation is premature.
“That is underway, and I think it’s only prudent to let that lawsuit play out,” Ferguson said.
This past February, Olen Commercial Properties, along with other business park tenants, sued their landlord and ESC over the sale of the property. The lawsuit claims the Association didn’t have the legal authority to sell the land without the support of its tenants.
Ferguson added that she wouldn’t support moving forward with the plan, also noting that the land is already protected as open space—an argument Connor had previously raised.
Leading up to the council’s discussions on the matter, Connor questioned the city’s urgency to condemn the land when the city’s Measure V ordinance is already meant to keep the property as open space.
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 response to Ferguson’s concern, Smith explained that having open space isn’t the same as owning the land.
“It’s one thing to have property designated as open space, but that’s not the same thing as having title to it,” Smith said.
Bane echoed the thought, stating that while “Measure V is great,” it doesn’t offer enough protection to stop the Transportation Corridor Agencies from considering extending the toll road to Interstate 5 via San Clemente’s open space.
“So the highest and best protection is the conservation easement,” he said.
According to the city, the acquisition of the land would provide the “last piece of the puzzle” to the city’s protected area, which includes the surrounding open space around ESC’s property.
That space consists of 287 acres of land the city was able to turn into a conservation easement following an environmental easement agreement the city entered into with the Marblehead Community Association in September 2018.
The city also notes that Sen. Patricia Bates recently introduced legislation that, if passed, would prohibit the construction of a major thoroughfare in San Clemente’s open space areas or conservation easements.
The measure, Senate Bill 1373, is currently sitting in the state senate’s committee on Governance and Finance.
The council will convene their next meeting via teleconference on April 21 at 6 p.m. The meeting can be live-streamed through the city’s YouTube channel.
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.