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Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 6:59 am | Fair 49º


City Takes Up Property Acquisition to Keep Bridge Project on Track

The Santa Barbara council votes to invoke the authority of eminent domain litigation in case property owners refuse purchase offers.

The Mission Creek bridge, built in 1915, has been classified as structurally deficient. The Haley/De la Vina Streets Bridge Replacement Project calls for restoring and widening the span, among other improvements. (Mollie Helmuth photo)

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday heard details of the Haley/De la Vina Streets Bridge Replacement Project during a public hearing for property owners who will be affected by construction.

Pat Kelly, assistant Public Works director and a city engineer, represented the project at the Redevelopment Agency Meeting, explaining to the council that “the process is created so as to ensure projects for the public good like this are achieved in a timely and efficient manner.”

The overpass spans the intersection of De la Vina and West Haley streets, over Mission Creek, which is closely lined with residential and business properties. To reduce the risk of flooding and to improve the creek banks, the project will widen the bridge from its 35-foot-by-150-foot model to a 50-foot-by-159-foot version.

The Mission Creek bridge was built in 1915 and has been classified as structurally deficient, according to Kelly, who said the construction also will introduce drainage facilities and a pedestrian plaza to the newly widened intersection.

Restorations on Mission Creek have been a long-standing project within the city’s Public Works Department. “The bridge is just one small piece of it,” City Councilwoman Helene Schneider said. “Ultimately, we will get rid of all concrete (in the creek) and return it back to a natural state.”

Two issues were brought to the council Tuesday. The first involved an addendum to the certified final environmental impact report, updated for the project from its original application to the Lower Mission Creek Project. The addendum passed without much deliberation.

The second was more complex. The council voted in favor of adopting Resolutions of Necessity to acquire certain properties surrounding the creek to allow for the construction. In other words, the city attorney now has the authority to initiate eminent domain litigation through the Superior Court if owners refuse to accept the city’s offers to purchase their properties.

Properties needed for the project include four real properties and several easements, some of which would be used only temporarily by the city for sidewalk reconstruction projects. Other easements would be permanently acquired to make space for the widened bridge and creek.

The Public Works Department has hired professionals to assist in negotiations with property owners. Stephen Schott was hired to conduct appraisals of all properties to ensure owners receive accurate compensation. Real estate firm Hamner Jewell & Associates has been helping homeowners find new housing in the area.

While five of the nine property owners have accepted offers by the city to compensate the use of the space, Schneider hopes the remaining four properties won’t need to be acquired by eminent domain. “Legally, we have to go through these steps,” she said. “I hope we can reach an agreement. This is a flood control project; it’s going to protect their properties in the long run.”

Roger Eggers, a part of the Eggers Family Trust that owns 513 and 517 De la Vina, has not agreed to the city’s offer to acquire temporary and permanent easements on the properties. “We are getting an attorney,” he said. “Ultimately, we wish this weren’t happening, but it’s going to happen.”

According to Kelly, all property owners were informed through the mail of their right to speak at the City Council hearing.

David Flint, owner of 430 De la Vina, of which the city has requested temporary easement occupation during construction, spoke at the meeting. He and his wife had not accepted the city’s offer as of Tuesday.

“This project has a large impact on my wife and me,” Flint said. “We are in the process of negotiation, but we are also in the process of getting another appraisal done.”

“We will try to come to some sort of agreement,” Mayor Marty Blum assured Flint. “We will try to be fair.”

Construction of the bridge is set to begin in April 2009, and the Resolutions of Necessity were adopted to make sure that time frame is achieved.

“The process was created for public benefit so that public improvements can go forth without being delayed by one property owner,” Kelly said.

One snag the Public Works Department has come across, however, is a missing property owner. The land is along the 500 block of De la Vina, in the creek bed. After numerous attempts to find the owner, the only title information recovered was from 1920. Kelly says that if the owner is not located, there is a process by which the compensation money goes into escrow and eventually reverts to the county or state.

Mayor Pro Tempore Grant House voiced concerns that the Resolutions of Necessity would “thwart the ability to come to a suitable resolution for appropriate values” and asked, “Are we drawing the line that (property owners) are hostage to however we appraise the property?”

City Attorney Stephen Wiley said property owners have two choices: Compensation values can be decided through negotiation, or “eminent domain will resolve itself through a jury trial,” meaning a property owner could bring the appraisal value before a jury.

As for funding, about 88 percent of the project will be funded through the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The city will be responsible for a little more than 11 percent of the costs.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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