Cypress moves forward in plan to seize church land
Council challenges citizens' bid to bring eminent-domain dispute to voters.

July 10, 2002

The Orange County Register

Orange County, CA - Cypress City leaders took steps this week to defend their plan to seize 18
acres from Cottonwood Christian Center by challenging a bid by a citizens
group to take the matter before the voters.

The City Council voted 3-0 Monday night to dispute a petition seeking a
referendum on the city's proposal to use eminent domain to oust Cottonwood
from its property in favor of a lucrative retail center anchored by Costco.

The 4,764-signature petition was filed last month by Citizens for Property
Rights, a 250-member group formed after the city voted in front of hundreds
of church supporters to take the church's property using eminent domain.

"My group is outraged," said Scott Aanonson, a spokesman for the property-
rights group and a Cottonwood member. "I don't know how they can sit there
and calmly deny 5,000 voters."

The petition, if validated, would put the fate of the property in the hands
of the Cypress voters.

But city officials contend the petition is unlawful because a referendum is
typically used to stop city laws, not administrative policies such as the
eminent-domain resolution.

"It's nothing that's ever been done before," said Councilman Frank McCoy,
who along with council members Anna Piercy and Tim Keenan authorized city
officials to file a lawsuit later this week. Councilman Mike McGill was
absent and Mayor Lydia Sondhi did not vote on the issue because she lives
near the disputed site.

Chapman University law professor Tony Arnold agreed with McCoy, saying
referendums are typically used to challenge legislative actions.

"Still, just because it's a resolution doesn't make it invalid," said
Arnold, an expert on land-use regulation.

Church supporters said city leaders' latest action is an insult to city

"They are afraid of allowing a vote to come before the people. That shows
incredible arrogance," said John Fugatt, executive of director of the
Christian Coalition of California and a Huntington Beach resident.

Monday's action comes weeks after the council, acting as the city's
Redevelopment Agency, made national headlines when it became the first
Orange County city to use eminent domain to force a church out of its land
to make way for a retail complex.

The complex is expected to generate up to $900,000 a year in sales-tax

The May 28 decision thrust the bedroom community into the national
spotlight, triggering a series of debates among legal scholars,
property-rights proponents and religious- rights activists.

It also set the stage for a series of legal battles, including a federal
court injunction sought by Cottonwood to prevent the city's attempt to take
its land. Prior to that, Cottonwood sued the city in January, asking for
permission to build a $50 million worship center on the 18-acre lot.

A hearing on the federal injunction is set for Aug. 5.

Cottonwood, which has a 4,000-member congregation, bought the Cypress land
in 1999 for $13 million with the hopes of building a larger worship center.

"We had every reason to believe that we would be able to accomplish that,"
said the Rev. Mike Wilson, a church spokesman.

But Community Development Director David Belmer said city planners made it
clear that the property, at Katella Avenue and Walker Street, would be a
retail site.

"We explained all of that to them," Belmer said.

Representatives from both sides said they are still hopeful about finding an
alternative site for the church to expand, perhaps property at the Cypress
Golf Course.

Homeowner sues city over junk-car law

Rob Tucker; The News Tribune A Milton homeowner has filed a federal lawsuit against the city's junk-vehicle law, which he says violates his constitutional rights to do what he wants on his property.

Raymond Howard said he loves to work on old cars in his yard.  But Milton's ban on junk vehicles - those that are stored at home, unlicensed, dismantled and inoperable - is vague and extreme, he said.

Howard believes the law violates the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S.
Constitution, he said.  Chester Church, another Milton homeowner, has joined Howard in the lawsuit, which asks for damages of $600,000.  The case, filed last month, could go to trial this fall at the earliest.

"We're not affecting other people's health or anything," said Howard, a 16-year resident and assistant chief of the Riverside Fire District.  "The city's harming our property rights.  I had this dream of retiring and working on my cars."

But the city contends junk vehicles harm a community.  Milton Mayor John Williams said run-down cars and large, rusty vehicle parts strewn on homeowners' yards violate neighbors' rights to enjoy their property and hurts the city's image.  The law allows the city to take junk cars and trucks off private property, city officials said.

A city judge fined Howard $500 based on an Oct.  17, 2001, citation for storing at least one junk vehicle.  Howard said he didn't know the exact number of vehicles for which he was cited; municipal court records don't specify a number, either.

The City Council in January added a stiffer criminal misdemeanor penalty to the ordinance.  The council wanted to toughen enforcement against people who paid lesser fines when cited but continued "to build their inventory of junk vehicles,"
Williams said.

On March 7 of this year, police cited Church on suspicion of storing at least one junk vehicle and large vehicle parts on his property.  The Church case hasn't gone to trial, according to the Milton court clerk's office.

Milton residents who are convicted of storing junk vehicles could pay a fine of up to $1,000 and serve up to 90 days in jail.

In a written statement, Church said the ordinance is vague when it says it's a crime to keep a vehicle that is "apparently inoperable." Church didn't return repeated calls seeking comment.

Howard said making junk-vehicle storage a crime is too harsh.  He wants to repair one inoperable vehicle that currently sits along the street in front of his home at
1610 Oak St.  Another car awaiting repairs is located next to his home, within a grassy area surrounded by a high fence.  More than a dozen other cars and trucks surrounding his home are operable and licensed, he said.

Until a decade ago, many cities in Washington used criminal misdemeanor charges to force people to remove junk vehicles and other junk in their yards, said Pam James, a consulting attorney for the Municipal Research and Services Center in Seattle.

However, judges became reluctant to lock people up for such offenses when courtroom caseloads and jail populations grew.  Many cities decided to decriminalize junk-vehicle storage and other nuisance offenses, but some, like Puyallup, Sumner, and Tacoma, still have the misdemeanor charge on the books as a last-ditch enforcer.

"Fifty years ago without so many people," James said, "it was no big deal.  Now it's really becoming a nuisance."

Junk-vehicle storage at homes is still a perennial problem for cities, she said.

"Their real beef," said City Attorney William Cameron, "is that they don't like to be told what do."

Rob Tucker: 253-597-8374  

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