By Cathy Redfern

RIVERSIDE —- The county can move forward with forcing the sale of properties needed for the eastern extension of Clinton Keith Road following a decision Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

The board voted 4-0, with Supervisor Marion Ashley absent, to authorize a “resolution of necessity” to begin eminent domain proceedings on land needed for the road project. The county and nine property owners have failed to reach an agreement on the purchase of the land after negotiating for about two years, county officials said.

That doesn’t mean the county will continue down the lengthy road toward using the power of eminent domain, County Supervisor Jeff Stone said at Tuesday’s meeting in Riverside. Eminent domain is a legal process through which government agencies can acquire land for a public benefit by forcing the property owner to sell it at fair market value. Often, however, the process leads to negotiations resulting in the sale before the case reaches court.

The county needs pieces of land spread across 28 properties to extend Clinton Keith Road 3.4 miles east from Antelope Road in Murrieta to Winchester Road in French Valley, county officials say. According to a staff report, the estimated acquisition cost is $2.86 million.

Negotiations have led to settlements on 19 of those properties, Stephi Villanueva of the county’s facilities management department told the board. She said the county has sought to maximize the benefit to the public and minimize the loss to the landowners.

The $70 million road project could begin as soon as the end of this year and will take 18 months to complete, county officials said.

Two attorneys spoke Tuesday against the use of eminent domain, including an attorney representing a church on Capra Road, near Menifee Road, that is in the path of the coming Clinton Keith.

The San Diego attorney representing the House of Prayer Church said his clients were reluctant sellers who believe the county’s offer for the land and relocation was insufficient.

“These property owners don’t want to lose their land,” attorney Robert Miller said.

“Amen,” a couple sitting in the audience said quietly.

John Crouch, assistant pastor of House of Prayer Church, said after the meeting that the church has about 200 members and it is not clear where they would relocate.

“It’s nice there, but since they are going to send the road through, we will be in a hard spot,” he said.

An attorney representing a second landowner said his client has concerns about possible drainage problems from the road.

The county needs only part of the land owned by the Barbara J. Baker Trust, attorney David Hubbard said, but an appraiser has advised his clients that the road project would funnel water onto the balance of the land, causing drainage problems and lowering its value. The county has not offered compensation for that, he said.

Stone responded that the county would address the drainage issues and continue to work with the property owner.

On the use of eminent domain, Stone said he would only support it if all other remedies are exhausted. He said he would meet with the property owners to try to reach a settlement.

However, he said, there is no question about the need to extend Clinton Keith, calling it a “very, very important” artery in Southwest County. Clinton Keith, Scott and Newport roads are major east-west corridors, he added. Such road improvements will allow “quality regional development” in the area, Stone said.

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