By Paul Burgarino

Pittsburg’s Redevelopment Agency can acquire a three-acre piece of contaminated land near the waterfront before an eminent domain lawsuit is resolved, though it must deposit more money to proceed, a county Superior Court judge ruled this week.

Judge Thomas Maddock affirmed a tentative ruling Friday that says the redevelopment agency is entitled to the property owned by Marine Express Inc. on E. Third Street and would “suffer a substantial hardship” if the application for possession is denied or limited.

However, the agency must increase the amount of money deposited into the state treasurer’s Condemnation Deposits Fund by $700,000 as probable compensation for the property.

Maddock said the city must deposit a total of $1.8 million as potential reimbursement to the owner. Pittsburg has put about $1.1 million into the fund, said Juliet Cox, an attorney with Goldfarb and Lipman LLP, the firm representing the city.

The agency board, which consists of the Pittsburg City Council, will have to decide whether it wants to pay the extra money to proceed with cleanup, she said. The council will discuss the issue in closed session Monday, said Randy Starbuck, Pittsburg’s redevelopment director.

“If the city of Pittsburg wants to take away my client’s property, then it’s going to come at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Peter Langbord of Foley & Mansfeld PLLP, an attorney acting on behalf of Marine Express.

The property is part of a 33-acre site identified by the city as a unified development area in June 2006. Gaining the land would enable Pittsburg to pursue redevelopment of the area just west of Harbor Street, even though no concrete plan has emerged.

Pittsburg officials had raised concerns that if the property weren’t acquired soon, the owner might proceed with development, resulting in a higher property value.

Marine Express has been the only waterfront property owner not interested in working with the city. Langbord says his client intends to operate a marine-services business to repair deepwater ships, which reflects Pittsburg’s goals there.

“From our perspective, it seems quite silly,” Langbord said. “It’s not like they are building something the public needs right away; there’s nothing out there now.”

Marine Express has argued that it has started to clean the property and there is no need for the city to take over. Pittsburg contends no work to clean land contamination had been done until eminent domain was raised, and the agency can do the job itself.

In early July, the regional Water Quality Board approved a plan for the redevelopment agency to clean up the property. The agency must file an amendment to show that, Maddock said.

In a suit filed April 8, the redevelopment agency asked a judge to direct Marine Express to sell its property to the city for a fair market value price of $966,000. That price was determined by an appraisal done for the city in September 2007. The property is valued at $1.26 million when clean, the appraisal said.

A final resolution in the case — if the council approves spending the money — could take months, say attorneys for both sides.

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