Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 | A meeting in the San Diego border community of San Ysidro was Tuesday night’s stage for a familiar power play. The scene could have been set anywhere, judging by the interest of property owners, media and courthouses when anyone hears the words “eminent domain.”

Eminent domain evokes fears of faceless bureaucrats taking your hard-earned homes and businesses for no good reason. Tuesday, two employees from San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency, Robert Chavez and Xavier Del Valle, showed their faces to explain how the San Ysidro community would benefit from the agency wielding that power.

The setting was a meeting of the San Ysidro Project Area Committee, which is charged with advising the agency on redevelopment matters in San Ysidro including eminent domain. The city’s power to execute eminent domain in San Ysidro expired last year and the committee must issue a recommendation to City Council on extending it.

Chavez and Del Valle knew the board wouldn’t be an easy sell. And the board’s eventual deadlock showed that to be the case.

“I think there’s the practical reason of fear of people,” said Chavez, a redevelopment coordinator. “That distrust in government is something that’s beyond redevelopment.”

In San Ysidro, the mistrust has its roots in the middle of last century when Interstates 5 and 805 snatched away people’s properties. And since the area’s designation as a redevelopment zone 13 years ago, the agency officials can point to the Las Americas outlet mall, but residents are still waiting for the agency to give them a library and mixed-use projects promised by the City of Villages concept.

Delivery on those obligations should be part of the eminent domain discussion, community members argued Tuesday night.

Eminent domain is the government’s condemnation of private property for public purposes usually in exchange for the property’s fair market value. The San Diego area has had its share of well-publicized successes and controversies over eminent domain’s use.

Without eminent domain it is unlikely that two catalysts for the transformation of downtown San Diego, Horton Plaza and Petco Park, happen. A $38 million affordable housing project in Barrio Logan, called La Entrada, that opened this summer was made possible through the use of eminent domain on one holdout property owner.

Some community leaders in Escondido are concerned that city’s lack of eminent domain power could scuttle a current attempt to build a new football stadium for the San Diego Chargers.

But eminent domain has sparked high-profile spats in National City over a youth boxing gym giving way to a proposed high-rise condominium and retail project, in downtown San Diego over the condemnation of a cigar shop to build an oft-delayed hotel, and the fate of a 30-foot cross above Mount Soledad.

In the city of San Diego, eminent domain works in different ways. The city has the power of eminent domain for public projects, such as roads, sidewalks or storm drains. The majority of the city’s 17 redevelopment project areas, including one in San Ysidro, can use eminent domain to eliminate blight. That often means condemning property so a private developer can build something, usually housing or retail, deemed consistent with that community’s plan.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Del Valle, a project manager for the San Ysidro Redevelopment Project Area, made his case that eminent domain could help solve some of the community’s problems. One-third of the buildings in San Ysidro’s commercial corridor are smaller than typical stand-alone commercial developments.

Most retail properties lease for 50 cents to $1 less per square foot in San Ysidro than in comparable markets. Serious crime, such as murder, rape and robbery, is higher in San Ysidro than most of the rest of San Diego, though the crime is concentrated in commercial areas and near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Further, Del Valle said, both California law and the redevelopment agency’s history show that the community has little to fear from eminent domain. State law prohibits the agency from condemning occupied residential properties.

Yet, since San Ysidro was deemed a redevelopment zone, not once has the agency used eminent domain. It is, Del Valle said, both a last resort and important negotiating tactic for the agency to use against recalcitrant property owners.

“Have we implemented eminent domain in San Ysidro? No, we have not,” Del Valle said during the meeting. “Do we have any plans to use eminent domain in San Ysidro? No, we do not. But it is an effective tool for the Redevelopment Agency to have.”

While Del Valle spoke those words, the crowd murmured to themselves: If no one is going to use eminent domain, it asked, then why is the agency pushing it?

The murmuring spoke to the most significant aspect of the eminent domain discussion: trust in government.

“You’re asking us to put a lot of trust in the city to do the right thing,” said Jason H-B Wells, the advisory board’s chairman and executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. “I think anybody can understand the scientific reasons for eminent domain, but this is a trust issue.”

The agency did right by Jennifer Goudeau, an advisory board member and vice president at San Ysidro landowner Barob Group, Ltd. Her company owned 50 acres that are now part of Las Americas. In the late 1990s, the agency approached the company and offered “friendly condemnation” over the company’s land. Barob agreed, sold its land to the agency and received a tax benefit for its trouble.

“It worked out very well for us,” said Goudeau, who voted for extending eminent domain at the meeting.

It didn’t work out so well for Bertha Alicia Gonzalez, an advisory board member and owner of an income tax and immigration consulting business in San Ysidro. Prior to San Ysidro being declared a redevelopment zone, the city condemned her business through eminent domain and there’s now a parking lot in its place.

“I pled with them for 18 years,” said Gonzalez, who voted against extending eminent domain.

Tuesday’s meeting ended with a roll call vote. The advisory board was deadlocked 3-3 on whether eminent domain should remain in San Ysidro.

The decision forced Del Valle and Chavez to regroup. Instead of taking the matter to city council, the agency will bring eminent domain back before the advisory board next month in a workshop setting. They would like the group to make a recommendation one way or another.

“A split decision doesn’t give any direction to the City Council about what the community wants,” Chavez said. “That’s the last thing we want to do.”

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