By Raneeka J. Claxton

Six months ago, Dream Homes residents were elated about a new “workforce” housing development and community center planned near their neighborhood.

Now, nine families on San Diego and Mission drives are concerned they will lose part of their properties to make way for the development.

City Council unanimously voted Feb. 27 to negotiate with the families to acquire a portion of their backyards through eminent domain – the government’s right to take private property for public use.

“All the property owners were sent certified letters informing them,” said Jim Cleary, project manager for the city’s Redevelopment Agency. “It was made clear to them that it was simply the rear portion of their properties.”

But the mainly Spanish-speaking residents attending the meeting last week, many of whom were offered $1.25 per square foot, say the plan is unacceptable.

“I agree that everybody got the letters,” property owner Marc Jutras, 54, said. “I have never verbally been contacted on the phone. They’ve (neighbors) gotten the letters also, but nobody’s come out to see them.”

Property owner Victor Ortiz, 48, said he received a message from Cathedral City and got a letter, but still has “no idea” what’s going on.

“It’s not that they (property owners) object to the project,” said 26-year-old Steve Barrientos, whose mother owns one of the properties affected. “They don’t think it’s a fair price for their property.”

The city has used eminent domain since the mid-1990s to develop high-profile commercial and tourism projects, such as Town Square, and Desert IMAX and Mary Pickford theaters. And plans to create a mixed-use neighborhood on the east side of downtown include eminent domain.

The average parcel of land the city is considering on San Diego Drive is slightly larger than 13,000 square feet, Cleary said. Of those 13,000 square feet, the Redevelopment Agency would buy about 5,000.

Appraisals were completed by the Redevelopment Agency, Cleary said.

“What is being acquired is surplus land,” said Jan Davison, redevelopment director.

But the property owners may not consider their yards surplus land, Councilman Greg Pettis said.

Because the city didn’t have a translator at the meeting, Fire Chief Bill Soqui took about 10 of the Dream Homes residents into the hallway to translate while city officials continued the discussion in Council Chambers.

Mayor Pro Tem Charles “Bud” England suggested waiting to vote.

“My concern is we’re talking in legal terms,” England said. “I just want to make sure they (affected residents) understand what’s going on.”

But Davison said the developer, Rancho Cucamonga-based National Community Renaissance, has “time constraints” with the move.

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