By Paul Burgarino
John Stoneking says he has been under siege by the county for the past two decades.
Stoneking, a 61-year resident in the Orbisonia Heights area of Bay Point, has fought plans by the county’s Redevelopment Agency to redevelop his 7.6-acre neighborhood near Bailey Road into a transit-oriented housing and commercial area. He says property owners have been unfairly targeted for blight and added that owners didn’t want to invest in their homes only to be bought out.
He is not alone. While the county has reached agreements with most homeowners to buy their property and assist them in relocating, a handful of neighbors are still unsatisfied. Stoneking said they are weighing their options, including legal action.
Karen Laws, the principal real property agent in the county’s public works department, said the county and relocation firm Overland Pacific have been working on presenting several available properties to the remaining homeowners.
The homeowners are entitled to relocation benefits, including moving expenses, rent differentials and setting up amenities and utilities, she said.
Some homeowners also said their property values are being shortchanged by the county. Appraisals take into account the highest and best land use for a property, Laws said. Property owners can also hire their own appraiser with county money.
“We try to make where they move as good or better,” she said. “If you look at where some of the old property owners have been moved to, I think there has been a betterment.”
The money used to acquire the properties is from capital bonds issued in May 2007. Acquisition costs are estimated at $21 million to $23 million, said Maureen Toms, a county planner.
Approximately 28 homeowners lived in the area near Ambrose Park when the county originally started buying properties in the mid-1980s. Homeowners still living there estimate that seven to nine remain.
Stoneking said he submitted an offer to the county last week to relocate to homes in the nearby Lawlor Estates subdivision.
His property is worth more than where he would relocate and the Lawlor homes “are sitting empty anyway,” Stoneking said. The county’s public works department received his request.
Stoneking’s frustration has grown to the point where he sees nothing positive about the approval in last week’s election of Proposition 99, which prohibits public agencies from uprooting them unjustly. Homeowners placed handmade signs atop the roofs of several of the older, dilapidated homes off Bailey Road just south of Highway 4 with spray-painted messages in favor of the proposition.
“They’ll just change the wording from eminent domain to blighted housing, and they’ll be let off the hook for liability,” Stoneking said. “Proposition 99 doesn’t change a damn thing.”
When asked about Proposition 99 before the vote, Redevelopment Director James Kennedy said: “From our perspective, it doesn’t really have an effect on our policy goal. We’re still negotiating with current property owners and still expect to reach settlement with all owners.”
That is still the case, he said last week.
So far, the county hasn’t used or threatened to use eminent domain but rather has “reached agreements slowly but surely,” Kennedy said.
In May, four of the existing vacated properties were demolished, Toms said. Five more are scheduled for demolition later this month, following asbestos abatement.
At this point, the Orbisonia Heights project is only in the planning phase. The county is waiting until the economy shows signs of improvement before moving forward with a request for proposal from developing firms, Kennedy said.
The hope is that the project would yield 325 high-density housing units along with roughly 40,000 square feet of commercial space for either retail or business park use, Toms said.
If the county doesn’t accept resident plans, Stoneking said he’s ready to get aggressive.
“We’ll get lawyers involved and be relocated to Lafayette, where it’s a little more sophisticated,” he said.
Contra Costa Times: http://www.contracostatimes.com