Redevelopment foes share dire warnings

By C.J. Barbre

It was the front page story of the June 1991 Highlander, La Puente's hometown newspaper.

Richard and Leeanne Curts were packing up their 1947 Southern Pacific caboose onto a flatbed trailer and leaving La Puente for Lindsay. They said they had given up on their fight against eminent domain and redevelopment that they had waged for the last 18 months. The reporter noted, now somehow ominously, that Lindsay had its own redevelopment program.

At the Aug. 24 Lindsay Redevelopment Agency meeting, where it was announced that the city planned to expand its Redevelopment Area from 600 to 863 acres, 131.6 acres of which are county property, the Curts flatly stated that they wouldn't be included, under any circumstances. Their property on Avenue 245, next to the railroad tracks, is not included in the new redevelopment areas. However, they fear it is only a matter of time.

The back story

Richard Curts had purchased his property next to the railroad tracks in La Puente specifically so he could hear the Southern Pacific freight trains going by every 40 minutes. Richard's grandpa was a railroad man. Richard is a no-holds-barred model railroader. He had a 25- by 50-foot layout in a 1,500 square foot building, of which one third was living space.

"There were from nine to 25 people, with a core group of about seven guys who hung in from day one, who Dick mentored," said his wife, Leeanne. She was one of the kids who got involved. It started with 7-14-year-olds. As they grew up and got girl friends and got married, somebody new would come along. "It was like a family," she said. She was 18 when she married Dick in 1982. He is 29 years her senior. They are celebrating their 26th anniversary this year. Richard is retired from the machining industry on disability, as a result of having contracted cancer. Leeanne is a homemaker and premier train layout modeler. She has taken many awards, her latest being the "Modeltoberfest 2002" winner in a regional meet of the International Plastic Modelers Society.

In 1989, as dot coms failed and California headed into a deep recession, La Puente lost two major auto dealerships from which they were receiving an estimated $125,000 annually in sales tax revenues. To make up for these loses, the city formed a redevelopment agency, borrowing $300,000 from city hall to cover administrative costs. Two years earlier the city had "bulging reserves" of $16.8 million. Already this raises some questions, but most people didn't think to ask.

Leeanne said when she received the first notice about the Redevelopment Area in the mail, she just tossed it in the trash. That would change. It turned out the Curts owned one of 37 properties the city determined it needed to acquire in the 92.7-acre Project Area made up of 40 homes and 200 businesses.

It turns out that if a group chooses to form a citizen's committee to fight redevelopment, the city must pick up the tab, just like they do for their redevelopment agency, including an attorney for the citizen's group. They formed the La Puente Redevelopment Agency Project Area Committee or PAC as they are commonly known.

Leeanne said the city wanted them to use the city attorney, but they saw it as a conflict of interest. PAC hired Christopher Sutton, a Pasadena attorney who specializes in redevelopment law. La Puente was supposed to pay his fee, but decided against doing so in October 1990. In November they reversed their decision, but limited the reimbursements to $450 per month. At $175 per hour it was not nearly enough. Sutton is quoted in a December 1991 article in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "If it keeps going, redevelopment will swallow up state and local government taxes. The redevelopment agency budgets are really like fat little pigs floating in the shark tank right now."

The state Legislature came up with the concept of redevelopment in the 1950s, but the process didn't really take off until the passage of Proposition 13. The 1978 tax-cutting measure left cities with few avenues whereby to expand their revenues, except redevelopment.

How it works

Cities designate blighted tracts of land as redevelopment project areas. Properties within the special areas can be condemned and sometimes combined with other properties to form parcels big enough for larger developments. Often, cities lure developers by offering land in the redevelopment area at cut rates.

Seated in the large living room of their Lindsay home, with model trains displayed on shelves around the walls, Richard said, "The subject of redevelopment is something you can learn from as far as government control goes. It's a long, draw-out process where everybody [involved in the redevelopment process] gets rich and the poor suffer and lose their houses. Basically it's a form where the government can circumvent Proposition 13, plus make the city council members personally rich," Curts asserted. "They [board members] get 6 percent from the redevelopment bond as a bonding agency." He said that is why the city council gets involved in the first place, and why council members are the Redevelopment Board. "They get to split the commission on the redevelopment bond for cash," he said.

Redevelopment offers cities a substantial tax advantage. Property taxes paid to all other government agencies - such as the county, school districts and library districts - remain stagnant for the life of the projects, a minimum of 30 years, as if property values had not increased at all. Cities get the tax increments which they are mandated to reinvest in project areas, subsidizing affordable housing and making other improvements.

Richard Curts said his property tax increased from $240 a year, after it was sold to a private party, to $1,600 a year. "Basically when they say that eminent domain isn't really necessary, or isn't important in a redevelopment program - it's the only thing that is important."

Curts said that for the Sweet Brier town homes, the city floated a bond. "If I have control over your property and the one next door, then I have a guaranteed income and I have collateral that I can go out and borrow money against that income which the redevelopment agency did. In other words, it is that income and that power that actually motivates and generates that money. The money doesn't come from the government, it comes from the people in every single case," Richard said.

Leeanne said, as a county resident in a Lindsay zip code, she felt a duty to inform her neighbors of the potential problems and pitfalls to residents in areas slated to be designated redevelopment parcels. She said typically Project Area Committees (PACs) are "made up of the lady from the chamber of commerce and some high falutin' real estate developer in it to make a bunch of money." She said she would approach residents of Hispanic descent, in that Lindsay is 80 percent Hispanic, to get involved. "We don't want to see the city running roughshod over them," she said. La Puente was of a similar socio-economic level but with a population of 35,000 when they initiated redevelopment.

The state laws that mandated PACs in 1972, and gave them veto powers in 1976, calls for them to be independent review committees. But the laws do not tell cities and agencies how to create and assist the groups of novice planners without exerting undue influence. A lengthy piece in the Nov. 23, 1990 Los Angeles Times<$> stated in one paragraph, "Elected homeowners fret incessantly over the motives of colleagues who represent land-hungry developer interests. The PAC plays a Jekyll-and-Hyde role as both adviser and watchdog to other government bodies including growth-hungry redevelopment agencies. Both roles are considered vital, but it becomes nearly impossible to install a thoroughly neutral panel."

The Curts were asked if they weren't jumping back into the fire after having scrambled into the frying pan to get to Lindsay. "I don't like it when they come out with suspicious intentions to capture county territory, without telling anyone in the county that we intend to do this and this. I will not allow those people in the county to just be affected blindly without at least knowing what their rights are and what the outcome could possibly be. Then, if they allow this creeping cancer to take over their property that's there problem," Leeanne said.

Things heated up pretty fast in La Puente. The city argued against paying PAC's budget. The city was in turn accused of over billing itself for mailings. Angry letters from citizens were printed in the various newspapers. Finally the city decided to hold town hall meetings to inform the citizens about redevelopment, but perhaps a little too late. There was talk of a grand jury probe. More angry letters. Petitions to stop redevelopment were circulated. By January 1991, Los Angeles County threatened to sue La Puente for "property taxes that the county needs." The county said many of the buildings "do not meet the legal requirement for blight."

It got uglier. The Curts said threats were made against them. They sent a notarized letter to the Executor of the La Puente Redevelopment Agency saying Richard had been assaulted, their cat had been killed - gunned down - and arson had been credited for at least one fire and possibly four others.

"I'm not implying anything, but the most important tool the city has is the police department if they need it. The police department works for and is paid for by the city. So they will do what the city wants. Ma'am, everything is an issue when it comes to moving people out of their homes," Richard said.

In reference to Lindsay, he said the Redevelopment Agency's suggestion that it will improve water and sewer was not a valid reason for acquiring the land. "They're not there to take people off of septic tanks, which is the world's poorest excuse, to go from septic tank to sewer. I pay zero for my septic tank. I don't know what their sewer charges are."

When the Curts left La Puente, the "world's largest privately owned model railroad" was chopped up. "Richard took a chain saw and told people to take what they wanted. He kept one of the older pieces," Leeanne said. She said about two thirds of it was thrown out. "You can't chop it up and reassemble it because of all the wiring underneath," she said. She said Richard just left. "It's like having your arm cut off," she said, agreeing that it was about 25 years' worth of work for some very devoted model railroaders.

But their departure wasn't the end. A new group arose Phoenix-like out of the ashes. RAGE was born - Residents Against Governmental Eviction. They successfully petitioned for a referendum. By the November election, voters rejected the city's redevelopment plan 917 to 363, along with a proposed police services tax that would have taken effect only if the plan was defeated. Measure B, the police tax, received 1,063 no votes and 363 yes votes.

The city said they would consider imposing a utility tax that did not require voter approval.

In July 1992 the FBI got into the act, questioning the April re-election of two council members due to an unusual number of absentee ballots.

In July 1992 the Curts had built a new home in Lindsay and had their Santa Fe caboose parked outside. In July 1992 Leeanne Curts had a letter to the editor published in the Porterville Recorder<$>, protesting the closure of Weisenberger's store. "With all the taxes and fees and assessments levied upon businesses these days, it is a wonder that any businessman can afford to keep his doors open," she wrote.

Editor's note: Due to space and time considerations, any response from the Lindsay Redevelopment Agency (which we have yet to contact) to comments in this article, will appear in an upcoming issue of the <$>Gazette.

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