June 15, 2007

National City Landowner says He’s Guilty by Association

eminent domain a cloud of uncertainty for a small business

By Raymond R. Beltran

On the corner of 18th Street and Cleveland Avenue in Old Town National City, just west of the Interstate 5 Freeway, trucks, diesels and residents, dump metals and service their vehicles. It’s been that way for some time.

But not for long it seems.

From the city’s standpoint, it’s time for change, and in National City, change means an industrial ‘tabula rasa’, a cleansing that current land owners aren’t ready to deal with.

Big box retailer Home Depot and Pacific Steel Industry, a metal recycling plant who currently owns the National City land they operate on, have been in negotiations to purchase and sell the recycler’s fifteen acres. The city likes it, to no one’s surprise.

But negotiations are still on hiatus, and what seems to be holding up the exchange is the corner lot co-owned by a science researchering couple Robert and Susanne Leif and their partner, Anthony Bedford.

In early March, they received the infamous Owner Participation Process letter that property owners dread. To them, it’s the first step the city takes before enforcing the big e-word. Eminent domain.

“I cannot understand the desire to make National City into a traditional suburb,” says Leif, who’s in full force to combat the practice. “They are boring. This place [National City] is alive.”

The letter offered Leif and Bedford the option to take part in the new project, which is to create a multiple use building or receive compensation for their land.

A land swap was offered by Leif, but the city deemed it unfair and now Leif is fighting tooth and nail against the city’s use of eminent domain.

He frequents council meetings and Mayor Ron Morrison says the Leif family has called him every name in the book, from ‘communist’ to ‘Soviet’ for the practice. But Morrison says it’s high time industrial business pay attention to their affect on the city.

Leif’s property, where three businesses are housed, sits in the midst of the CDC’s redevelopment area, subject to eminent domain, due to it being labeled ‘blighted’, or unsightly and polluted. To the city, it’s in need of a serious makeover.

One of the businesses, San Diego Hydraulics, just opened up and now does auto work for several county-wide businesses and residents. It’s a clean building run by what seems to be a responsible family, the Gomez’s. There’s a bushel of oleanders in the front and grafitti has seemed to skip the beige blocks their garage is made of.

Their curse, says Leif: the fifteen acres of PSI that hug the small business’s perimeter. Filled with scrap metal, lead, zinc and the like, metal recyclers PSI is what Mayor Ron Morrison calls a ‘gross polluter’ in the neighborhood and now Leif feels like he’s guilty by association.

“Presently, PSI is under a court order to clean up their site because of significant pollution,” says Leif, who recently walked the site with PSI’s manager. “Although they are slowly working on the clean up task, they are continuing to pollute the atmosphere.”

But Mayor Morrison says Leif has his own problems too, like the dumping of lumber on the corner of his property along 18th St. He says tests still need to be done to determine if businesses like San Diego Hydraulic are toxic, but it’s “plain and simple” to the mayor that the area is unsightly, a matter of opinion but an issue, he says, the city has brought to Leif’s attention for years.

“We’ve been telling him for years to clean up,” Morrison says. “These things need to be done so we can take some pride in the west side.”

Recently, National City has been getting negative press for its use of eminent domain, from the ouster of a youth boxing facility to build condominiums to the 2003 proposal to expand the redevelopment area city-wide, a move that Morrison calls an “Inzunza thing,” referring to the controversial former mayor, Nick Inzunza.

But eminent domain’s authority, which runs up National City Boulevard from 30th to Division St and all along the west side of the 5 freeway, is coming to an end in August, a looming setback for council members who make up the CDC. They are planning on renewing it’s jurisdiction at this Tuesday’s council meeting, June 19.

“Several years ago, they took a clean industrial property from us under the threat of eminent domain,” Leif says. “As a result, many high paying jobs were lost to the work force to be replaced by low paying jobs.”

He says that Tri-State Steel also had to move to Arizona because of the deal, and now he feels that small businesses like San Diego Hydraulic are next.

“The uncertainty associated with eminent domain has been a lose-lose situation for the landlords and tenants,” Leif says. “In National City, an honest owner cannot offer a long term lease.”

25 year old David Gomez, who runs his father’s two year old business, says he isn’t as worried as Leif would like him to be. For the Gomez’s, who just moved to National City in January from Barrio Logan, it’s the life of a tenant who doesn’t own the property and being asked to move would be more of an inconvenience as opposed to life shattering.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing we can do about it,” says young Gomez. “We would at least like to stay for the duration of our lease.”

They currently have two and a half more years to go and last year, he says, the shop raked in an approximate $500,000 in business. To him, that’s business that the city should be proud of.

“People need hydraulic work done,” says Gomez, who’s only worry is that customers are leery of a shop that hops around. “It’s [too bad], but eminent domain gives the city the power to do whatever they want.”

Leif previously wanted to swap his land for a piece of available property on 24th Street and Cleveland Avenue. He says the city shut him out to build a casino with the Sycuan Indian Tribe. Morrison says it was an unfair trade for a prime piece of land by the waterfront.

Nonetheless, the Home Depot/PSI deal is being forged ahead. Property value and price hasn’t entered the ‘exclusive agreements’ being tossed around in city chambers, says the mayor. Home Depot is a ‘desirable business’ to him and it seems the blue collar business owners are swaying to and fro on the west side. The business ball is in Leif’s court right now, and the city is waiting for a response.

If one’s not received, Redevelopment Project Manager Patricia Beard, who’s heading the Home Depot/PSI deal, says they’re not ruling out land seizure.

“It’s something that’s on the table,” says Beard, who says it’s ‘advantageous’ at times to just sell to the government. San Diego Hydraulic’s young Gomez says “everyone has their price” and that for him, his customers just need to know where they’re headed if they have to leave.

Morrison says relocation is an option for the Gomez’s and admits that, as it stands, he doesn’t mind incorporating their shop into the new plan.

Leif is mad as can be.

“But who wouldn’t be?” says Gomez. “If it was my land, I’d fight for it, too.”

‘Antagonizing’ is the word Morrison uses to describe the landowner when he attempts to speak at council meetings.

Leif replies, “I would much prefer to be in my laboratory, working on detecting disease than have to fight for what my family owns.”

Return to the Frontpage