By Melodi Hanatani

 District officials on Thursday voted to acquire two homes through eminent domain for the expansion of Edison Language Academy after months of negotiations with the property owners failed to yield results.

The Board of Education adopted a resolution to begin a process that through court-authority gives government entities the power to purchase private land for public use as long as the owner is compensated at fair market value. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will have six months from the time of adoption to file the necessary paperwork in court.

The Maruyama and Hernandez families, who own houses at 2508 and 2512 Virginia Ave. respectively, sat solemnly in the back row of the board room during the meeting, watching as officials cast their vote in support of the resolution.

“I was just hoping that they would go our way, thinking they will have a little heart,” Mary Hernandez said after the meeting.

The mother of four children moved into the three bedroom, one bathroom home 43 years ago, renting it until 1999 when she finally purchased the property from the landlord.

It was the perfect home for the family at the time, a big house in a safe neighborhood, she said.

“I don’t even want to think about not living there,” Hernandez said. “It’s going to be hard.”

Oscar de la Torre was the lone member who voted in opposition, saying he understands the need for an improved Edison, but couldn’t come to terms with displacing two families who represent the ethnic and socio-economic diversity that makes Santa Monica unique.

“The acquisition of the land is a benefit for the future of public education in the community and I respect everyone’s vote, but for me personally it was something that I just couldn’t do,” de la Torre said. “My hope is that because the real estate market has opened up, there will be other housing opportunities in Santa Monica for these families. People will be compensated the fair amount, but this is still somebody’s home and that was why this was so difficult.”

The properties in question abut the northeast corner of the elementary school, which is slated to be reconstructed.

The district has already offered Shinobu Maruyama, whose family has owned the house since 1952, $1.89 million for the property, which is right next door to the school. Hernandez, who lives on the other side of Maruyama, has received an offer for $1.99 million.

“As of this date, in spite of the district’s good faith efforts at negotiated acquisition, no agreements have been reached with Maruyama and Hernandez,” a staff report for the June 25 meeting said. The report also stated that it has always been the district’s preference to purchase the homes through negotiations, not eminent domain.

Officials believe that acquisition is necessary to bring the size of the school’s campus, which is 4.9 acres, closer to the California Department of Education’s standard of 7.8 acres. Adding the two parcels will bring the total acreage to 5.5.

Including the pair of houses, which will create a square-shaped campus, will also allow the school to maximize its play space by locating all the preschool and elementary classrooms to one side, the staff report said.

Campus reconstruction has long been a dream for the Edison community, which has raised concerns about the many physical challenges at the school, including cracks in foundation and the fact that many classrooms are in portable structures.

The school, a dual language institution where courses are taught in English and Spanish, has been fixed up in pieces over the past several years through donations from parents, who have given time and money to build a new courtyard and play area.

The new campus will include 27 classrooms for grades K-5, along with new basketball courts and playgrounds. A new drop-off and pick-up lane, which will include room for 12 parallel parking spaces, will also be constructed.

Lawrence Maruyama, who lives with his mother Shinobu and attended Edison before it was a language academy, said he is waiting on some outside funding that he believes will let him keep the house and allow the district to consider a different set of plans that would include acquiring multifamily residential buildings on both sides of the campus.

Maruyama said he could not disclose further details of the funds, but hopes they come through sometime late next week.

“My mother doesn’t want to move,” Maruyama said. “It’s the house of my grandparents.”

The district staff report said that the current proposal would be the lesser of expensive options and displace fewer number of families.

In condemning the properties, which is a declaration that the land will be converted for public use through eminent domain, the district must make several findings, including showing that the parcels are needed for the project. The district will also have to prove that the project “is planned or located in a manner that will be most compatible with the great public good and least private injury,” the staff report said.

During the eminent domain trial, a judge will determine the fair market value of the two properties. If the owners challenge the district’s intentions to purchase the properties, the judge will also rule whether the SMMUSD has legal rights to do so.

If the judge sides with the district, the ruling will go into a final order of condemnation, which will then be issued to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder to change the properties’ titles.

Maruyama said that if the funding does not come through and the district acquires his home through eminent domain, the family will most likely move out of town, calling Santa Monica unaffordable.

“If funding doesn’t come through then I’ll probably have to invite them (Hernandez) to come visit us in Las Vegas,” Maruyama said.

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