By Patty Fuller

Two strips of private land east of downtown Angels Camp have city officials en route to the first eminent domain, or land seizing, action they have taken in years.

Owners of one of the strips say, though, that they feel the city is trying to bully them into selling the land strip at a fraction of what it is worth, and that they will resolve the matter in court, if necessary.

“I’ve negotiated multi-million-dollar deals. I’ve never seen anyone not communicate the way the city does,” said Mark Jones of the dispute over the city water pipeline easement that nearly bisects the 1.75-acre parcel off Purdy Road that he and his wife, Wendy, own and live on.

It is also where their real estate-commerical lending business is based.

Under that stretch is a 10-inch pipe that is part of the city’s aging main water line. A line replacement project in the works calls for a 12-inch pipe to be installed parallel to the old pipe. This requires that the city’s existing 10-foot pipeline easement be widened to 20 feet.

City Engineer Gary Ghio explained that the wider easement is needed because the new pipe has to be at least 5 feet away from the old line.

But a wider easement would prevent the Joneses from building eight rental units that they say were the reason they bought the property, zoned for multiple residences, four years ago.

A wider easement would likely limit this project to four units, and result in a huge loss in future rental income, they said.

Based on an appraisal, city officials last year told the Joneses they would pay for the wider easement. Mark Jones said his response letter stated that he wants $50,000.

He noted Monday, though, that he is willing to discuss a lesser amount with city officials.

But how well the two sides have communicated is also at issue.

Beyond the land value, they are also in disagreement on how the property appraiser was chosen, why the Joneses weren’t notified an appraiser would be looking at their property and how the appraisal itself was determined.

City Attorney Richard Matranga and Ghio say the city has done everything it is legally required to do in terms of the appraisal and letting the Joneses know of city meetings and other efforts relating to the easement matter.

The Angels Camp City Council at its Dec. 16 meeting unanimously passed a resolution “declaring the public necessity for the Murphys Grade Waterline replacement project.”

The resolution regarded both the wider easement needed through the Jones property and another wider stretch needed on Purdy Road property owned by Bob and Kathleen Diebold.

 The Diebolds could not be reached for comment but city officials said this couple also takes issue with what the city wants to pay for the broadened easement.

While Bob Diebold received official notice of the Dec. 16 council meeting, Mark Jones said neither he nor his wife received any notice. He has since learned that a meeting notice the city staff sent by certified letter to the Joneses went to the couple’s old post office in Pismo Beach – and to someone else named Jones.

Regardless, Ghio and Matranga stress that they want to work with the Joneses to come up with a fair price, and not go through with the eminent domain.

“I’ve been the city’s attorney for almost 15 years and I’ve never filed an eminent domain action. So that ought to tell you the philosophy of the council,” Matranga said.

Ghio agreed that seizing the land is a last resort. But the city pipeline project needs to proceed, he said.

“I’m just sad it had to come to this,” Ghio said.

Rather than being sad, the property owners expressed frustration and distrust of city officials because of the now nearly two-year-old dispute.

“Somehow I think they think they’re dealing with an idiot,” said Mark Jones. “We’re getting to the point where, if you’re going to shove, we’re going to push back. I’m very protective when it comes to property rights.”

After learning of the eminent domain resolution, Jones wrote city leaders and asked that this action be reconsidered.

“It will only cost the city more in the long run,” his letter concludes.

Matranga said that he expects to again discuss the dispute with the Angels Camp City Council in closed session at its meeting next week.

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