By Merrill Balassone

Modesto City Schools can seize parts of several properties around Gregori High School in Salida if agreements are not reached with landowners within the next month.

The Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to authorize the use of eminent domain to take pieces of seven properties along Stoddard and Dale roads.

Director of Planning and Research Dana McGarry said road widening and other street improvements must begin in 30 to 45 days to keep construction on schedule.

“We realize this has moved very quickly,” McGarry said. “Time is of the essence.”

Max Norton, 87, and son-in-law Jim Sahlman said the district’s offer of $68,000 to buy land and relocate a public utility pole onto their property was not “just compensation.” The school board gave the go-ahead to raise the offer 10 percent, to $74,800.

“It just feels as if we’re dealing with someone at a car lot,” Sahlman said. “We recognize this is property that needs to go to Gregori High. This is about just compensation.”

Norton, a former speech and language pathology professor at California State University, Stanislaus, spoke of his emotional connection to his house, which he said was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s not happy about the district’s offer to erect a sound-buffering wall to muffle the noise of the widened Stoddard Road.

“This is more than just a house,” Norton said. “If you build something like that around (the house), I don’t think anyone in this room would be pleased.”

Norton’s house was featured in The Bee in 2004 for the stained-glass windows that Norton was inspired to design after a trip to Europe.

Board member Gary Lopez urged Norton and Sahlman to seek a second appraisal of the property, offered at the district’s expense, to come to an agreement and avoid eminent domain.

“We certainly want to be fair to all the landowners,” Lopez said. “(Gregori) has been delayed a long time. We don’t want to go this route.”

The district has acquired or opened escrow on seven of the 17 properties needed to widen the roads and move public utility poles near Gregori, scheduled to open in fall 2010.

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