By Gig Conaughton

VISTA —- Michael Booth stood in front of his home last week, a resortlike, rock-walled, wisteria and bougainvillea covered house on 2.7 acres of land teeming with fruit and a small winery, and grimaced.

Booth and a seemingly growing number of Vista residents said last week they were worried that the city wants to declare their homes “urban blight” and take them in the name of progress.

Those fears have emerged since the city announced a plan several months ago to expand its downtown redevelopment area into other parts of Vista.

Redevelopment is a controversial economic tool that cities have used since the 1940s to claim special tax advantages and reshape aging, unattractive neighborhoods.

In redevelopment areas, cities have the power to buy private property from unwilling sellers by paying what a court determines is fair market value in a process called the right of eminent domain. Vista officials have repeatedly said they won’t use eminent domain on private homes.

But that hasn’t soothed residents.

“I went around to 60 of my neighbors,” said Booth, “and I had 60 people with the same attitude. The city has sole power over eminent domain and the public has no control.”

The proposal

The city’s plan would more than double the size of Vista’s 2,016-acre redevelopment area, created in 1987 to give an economic boost and aesthetic face-lift to the city’s downtown core. City officials used redevelopment to create the downtown Vista Village shopping center, a sprawling mix of restaurants, retail shops and a movie theater, on property that used to be an abandoned strip mall.

The expansion proposal would draw in the city’s Townsite neighborhood; a large area between South Santa Fe Avenue and Highway 78; a big stretch of Sycamore Avenue in south Vista; and other parcels just north of Highway 78. The City Council vote is set to vote on the plan in June.

More than 50 percent of the expanded redevelopment area would be in residential neighborhoods.

“Why do they want to come into these … neighborhoods?” asked Betty Gilroy, an artist whose family has lived in the same home in the hills off South Santa Fe Drive since 1990. “What are their intentions?”

Gilroy and others said they believe the city’s aim is clear: Vista wants their property.

“My home is in the redevelopment area,” said George Wolfe. “I think the city is going to do a land grab.”

Good intentions

Bill Rawlings, Vista’s redevelopment director, said the city’s desire to expand residential zones into residential areas was to help those areas, not to take people’s homes. He said the city simply wants to build new infrastructure —– sidewalks, streetlights, curbs and gutters —- for the people living in those neighborhoods.

Rawlings said that people have no reason to fear being forced to sell their homes, because Vista’s plan specifically bars the city from using eminent domain in residentially zoned areas.

Rawlings said that the city had two main reasons to propose the expansion.

The first, he said, was because the original 1987 redevelopment corridors in urban areas have been too small or narrow to attract strong interest from developers. Widening those areas, Rawlings said, could change that.

The second reason was to improve life in the residential areas, he said.

“It’s not redevelopment for the purpose of putting in additional commercial or any development of any kind, but just to do infrastructure.”

Suspicions linger

Booth, who was elected by homeowners to a city advisory committee on redevelopment, said he is not persuaded the city’s goals are noble.

He said City Council members could still use eminent domain to take people’s homes by changing residential zoning.

Widening rural roads, putting in lights and gutters would make it easier to do that, he added.

“If the government wants your house, there are very easy ways for them to take your house,” Booth said.

Rawlings said changing zoning was unlikely, because it required a lengthy, public process.

Gilroy and some of her neighbors said last week that they also don’t think city officials have provided enough information about the proposed expansion.

Kay Buist, a retired schoolteacher, said she and many of her friends found out their neighborhood would be in the expansion zones by reading a city flier in December. The city began to publicly discuss expanding the redevelopment area months earlier, in July.

Gilroy said the city lost her trust in part because it failed to send out its redevelopment fliers in Spanish. Vista’s hardscrabble Townsite area, a redevelopment target, has many Spanish-speaking residents and 43 percent of the city’s total population is Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey.

Preserving the past

Buist said she is also worried about how the change could affect the hilly Lado de Loma Drive neighborhood where she and her husband have rented a home for several years.

She said the city could allow developers to build “hundreds” of condominiums or apartments and ruin the charm of the area, where eclectic homes line narrow, winding streets.

Buist said she and her friends are also offended that the proposal calls their neighborhood blighted.

“(That’s saying) I live in the projects now,” Buist said. “That’s how I feel.”

Rawlings said he hoped residents’ suspicions would not stop the city from pushing redevelopment into those areas.

“The only result of that will be that we won’t be able to improve the infrastructure, and continue to have little kids walking to schools in the street.”

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