City exercises eminent domain for bike trail
By Jesse Phelps
Citizens wonder whether extending
the Ojai Valley Trail is a good enough reason to go to court
for eminent domain proceedings.
For the first time in recent memory, the city of Ojai plans to
exercise its power of eminent domain.
Not in more than 20 years has
the city found cause to take possession of privately owned land
without the consent of its owner. But on at its regular meeting
Tuesday night, above protestations from owner Denise Wizman,
the Ojai City Council unanimously agreed to do just that.
The city plans to use the land in question, a 10-foot-wide strip
on a lot between Fox and Bryant streets, for the already well-publicized
Ojai Valley Trail extension.
In 1998, the city adopted the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan,
which holds as a priority extending the trail as far as Soule
Park to the east. The city has since secured $216,000 in grant
funding for the project, according to City Manager Dan Singer,
all of which is time sensitive.
But Wizman has staunchly refused to sell, citing alternately
plans for a senior housing development or her desire to keep
the land in her family.
In any eminent domain proceeding, the government is obligated
to pay "fair market value" to the property owner. As
appraisals can vary considerably, oftentimes the current owner
will elect to try the court system to get a better price. Wizman
said she can't accept the "low-ball" offers she's received
at this point from the city, so that's what she'll do. So far,
the city has offered less than $4 per square foot, based on two
separate appraisals. The total offered sum is $39,100 for a strip
of land more than 1,100 feet in length. he city estimates the
total area of land it wishes to purchase at 10,465 square feet.
Several letters between the two parties show a drastic difference
of opinion on value. In addition, Wizman, who already has given
up multiple sections of property for various city projects, including
the proposed Fulton Street extension, said she feels she's being
specifically targeted. "We may have to go to court,"
she told the council. "This could get very expensive for
both of us."
Wizman would not disclose what she paid for the property, which
she acquired from the Union Pacific Railroad several years ago.
The railroad had been in negotiations with the city but eventually
sold to Wizman.
Council members said they feel Wizman is overlooking potential
benefits from the trail. Councilwoman Rae Hanstad asked if Wizman
had considered the potential upturn in the property's value from
a picturesque bike trail. The currently a vacant lot stands adjacent
to industrial buildings.
Mayor Pro-Tem Sue Horgan agreed with Hanstad's point, saying
she'd given serious consideration to the entire matter. "I'm
an advocate for private property rights," she said, "But
I believe this project is a necessity and a priority."
Several members of the council also pointed out that Wizman bought
the property with full knowledge of the city's plans.
Citizens were split on the issue. One onlooker, who preferred
not be identified, said that she's very interested in the proceedings
because the city may be setting a dangerous precedent. Speaker
Bill Miley, who has actively participated in trail extension
meetings, sided with the city. "Eminent domain is a new
one for the city," he said, "But good work has been
Nobody working for the city could confirm a date of the last
eminent domain proceedings but word is that the bike trail was
similarly responsible for them.
The last time the city entered into an eminent domain action,
part of Libbey Park was annexed to provide for the trail, according
to former city attorney Phillip Drescher.
Meanwhile, Wizman said she'll fight it out to keep the land in
question. "I love that property," said Wizman. "I
intend to keep it for my family for many years to come."
The Ojai Valley News
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