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February 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 04, 2005

Editorial Editorial (February 04, 2005)

Secret meetings, eminent domain sour city's image

Some call it a Catch-22 situation. Others say it's a bureaucratic nightmare that Janice and Gary Duclair have found themselves in as they try to sell their house at 4254 Vervais Ave. After living there since 1977, and with their children now grown, they have moved to Manteca and asked local Realtor Mike Carey to sell the house. Located in a commercially zoned area, or so he thought, since the Duclairs moved there, he had an offer of $850,000 from a buyer who wanted to use the house for a business venture. But City Hall turned him down when he sought assurances the buyer could get a business permit. It seems that unbeknownst to the Duclairs or almost anyone else in Pleasanton, the City Council had rezoned the land for a park. Although the Duclairs could sell their house as a residential property as a nonconforming use on the newly rezoned parkland, businesses aren't permitted. As Carey and the Duclairs found, no one was interested, especially with the long-range plan by the city to tear the house down when funds for a park become available.

We're indebted to Planning Commissioner Anne Fox for her hours of detailed research to investigate what happened - how the city rezoned the Duclairs' property without telling them. She calls it an act of eminent domain. In a seven-page letter sent Jan. 26 to City Manager Nelson Fialho, she details the confusion, citing bungled task force decisions and secret meetings that rezoned the Duclairs' property without notice. It stemmed from the council's approval of a new Downtown Specific Plan after a two-year study by two task forces. While addressing downtown parking and housing issues, it also created a new Vervais Park at the northeast side of the Main Street Bridge to provide a better looking gateway to downtown. But none of the scores of task force members or members of the Planning Commission and City Council who later approved the new specific plan, apparently ever drove down the block-long Vervais Street to see the houses, like the Duclairs'.

Fox's research shows no one knew anyone lived on the street. And why would they? The Municipal Code, even today, still assumes that Del Valle Parkway will become a four-lane thoroughfare from Hopyard to Stanley, a 1970s plan that called for wiping out Vervais and properties along the north side of the Arroyo del Valle. That plan was abandoned years ago. The city's current General Plan map of the area that Fox viewed at the Planning Department's front desk is also out of date with what's actually there. But based on the new specific plan, the city Housing Commission ordered the house next door to the Duclairs at 4242 Vervais torn down. Until the Pleasanton Weekly sought information about that action, the Planning Department didn't know the house had been demolished. There's even confusion over just what the park would be if it's ever built. Some documents call it Vervais Park, others Main Street Green and another Arroyo Green.

What's just as disturbing to Fox has been the lackadaisical attitude of officials toward helping the Duclairs. No one wants to buy their house as a residence to use while awaiting a wrecker's ball, and the city also refuses to consider a special use permit to allow a business on property they rezoned for a park. The Duclairs have offered to sell their property to the city of Pleasanton at an appraised market value. In accordance with eminent domain procedures, but in closed door meetings with no records made of those discussions, council members have said no. According to City Attorney Michael Roush, who was there, the undisclosed asking price by the Duclairs was too high.

This doesn't make sense in a city that prides itself as a Community of Character that shows responsibility in its dealings with residents. Fox, in her letter to Fialho, says the city should allow the Duclairs to sell their property for commercial use, a use no different from preschool and day care centers the city, itself, operates in public parks. Or it should take action to reverse the rezoning decision by amending the Downtown Specific Plan and the General Plan. Fox says that would be a "responsible" action. We agree.

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