Questions Emerge Over Needles’ Use Of Eminent Domain To Do I-40 Connection

(April 9) The City of Needles has encountered some rough sledding in its proposed 2500 foot “Needles I-40 Interconnect Project” this week. The project was conceived of as a way to quiet the complaints of the state of Arizona, which is contemplating the construction of its own new highway on the east side of the Colorado River and threatening to bypass Needles entirely if California didn’t connect I-40 with AZ Highway 95.
The compromise project, currently being moved forward by supplemental federal assistance, would connect the I-40 at the downtown J Street exit and direct traffic through three intersections of the town to sport new traffic signals, ostensibly fast tracking vehicular traffic to the Colorado River bridge connecting Needles to AZ 95.
According to city officials, the interconnect project is “consistent with state, regional, and local plans and programs… [including] the Southern California Association of Governments Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, which is part of its Sustainable Communities Strategy” and one that “places more emphasis than ever before on the relationship between sustainability, integrated planning and mobility. The 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan outlines a transportation infrastructure investment strategy that will beneficially affect Southern California and is guided by a series of goals and objectives aimed at the need to balance the many priorities in the most cost-effective manner.
But some of the Needles land owners whose property is being appropriated by the city to accommodate the project dispute the  city’s need to seize the property in question, whether the city has an ulterior purpose in getting the property now in that it has an unannounced future design for the land that is not being disclosed and that the city’s priorities with regard to acting in a cost efficient manner have resulted in the violation of the property rights of the landowners. city
The city had purchased property in the path of the construction, while other targeted property that was not sold to them was condemned and slated to be taken by eminent domain. Nineteen property owners including the county of San Bernardino and 100 “Does” were named in the condemnation case filed by Best, Best and Krieger, the law firm representing the city of Needles on the complaint filed on January 14, 2015.
Defendants had 30 days to file their answer in the San Bernardino courthouse, 3.5 hours away from Needles. During the course of the month that followed, only one party answered the complaint, Robert J. Lopez and Ruth Musser-Lopez, trustees of a family trust land located on a rare landmark corner of Route 66, scheduled to be demolished as a part of the project. Coincidently, Ruth happens to be a political activist who ran for State Senate last year and who is also by training and profession an archaeologist, historian, and columnist who often authors stories for the Sentinel’s Glimpse of SBC’s Past.
“We have serious concerns about this project as it is designed and do not agree that it is planned with the best interest of the people and with the least harm and least impact,” Ruth Lopez said.  “The property owners held out as long as they could against the city and its representatives and attorneys who began strong arming them last spring into signing papers that would allow the city to take more land than that which was needed for the project and for purposes beyond the scope of the project. Those purposes are unrelated to the project and are intended for future uses. The city was offering a pittance in exchange not just for the land but for being able to utilize the property in ways that will have an even greater impact on our properties years from now. I don’t think the city anticipated any of us putting up a fight in court. We want the judge to hear our stories and to see the way the city has behaved badly, thinking that they can use their color of government authority to scare people into giving up their land, offering them peanuts for more property than the city is entitled to and for purposes that the city is  not entitled to use the land for, including future purposes that have nothing to do with the interconnect project.  I want to make sure that this never happens again in this state and that this bunch doesn’t go to another town and repeat the same thing.  I want to see this wrongful conduct exposed,” Ruth Musser-Lopez said.
“Most people are afraid to fight City Hall or do not have the money to even contact an attorney. They are concerned about the expenses of traveling to court 250 miles away or just don’t know what to do. In one case, an elderly religious woman was paid only $500 for her corner frontage and then was asked by the very same city officials to come provide the blessing upon the city council meeting. It was really sad, I was at that meeting to protest their wrongful take of our property and I really don’t believe that she understood what she was ‘blessing.’   She probably didn’t realize that the city can make back infinitely that same $500 over and over again with business signage on that so-called ‘sliver take’ of her land on one of the busiest corners in town. I wonder if she realizes that the attorneys who orchestrate these ‘takes’ typically make in one hour as much money as she got for her land.
“The evidence indicates that there was a much more efficient and less impairing/destructive way to move traffic from I-40 to Hwy 95 in Arizona,” Musser-Lopez continued. “There is significant evidence that the city did not do its due diligence in its planning effort nor was a good faith effort made to identify all of the potential damage of the selected alternative.”
From the J Street off ramp, downtown Needles to the bridge crossing the river, pavement rehabilitation and intersection improvements, including signals, turn lanes, sidewalks and crossings to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, some road widening, utility relocations, and some drainage improvements are to be installed.  Temporary construction easements (TCEs) and so-called “sliver-takes” (thin strips of new right-of-way to be acquired from adjacent properties) have also already been acquired by the city using threat of eminent domain and condemnation. Federal funding was obtained through a Local Assistance program of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with Caltrans being delegated with FHWA’s duties for oversight with regard to compliance with the federal environmental laws.
“The City and CalTrans wrongfully exempted their own project from environmental laws, but the project should not have been exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and since there are federal funds involved, the project definitely should not have been exempt from the National Environmental Protection Act,” said Musser Lopez. “The city plans to demolish a large historic median and wide sweeping turn lane on Route 66 that separates our family property from eastbound traffic that currently does not have to stop at a signal.   Without the median and the wide turn lane, the traffic will be closer to our yard, backed up behind a stop signal. Emissions from the vehicles stopped there will accumulate in our yard where children play and where we have traditionally had family gatherings and picnics,” Musser-Lopez reported.
“Beyond the environmental impact, we do not agree that our property is even needed for this project,” Musser-Lopez asserted. “When they started out, they were going to take five feet off of the frontage of both sides of our corner. When we began to question them, they cut the size down to just one side of our property but still wanted to take the property for future uses.   We continued to object and said that they already owned enough space to install a traffic signal and instrumentation.  The city then offered us $2000, four times as much as they had offered us originally ($500.00) saying that they had to have our land to install a large instrumentation box that would require them to make the sidewalk wider. “It was indicated to me by one of the planners that they could have easily redesigned the project or put the box on the land they already owned to the east of our property or on one of the three corners that they already had control of, but no, they were intent on taking our property and setting up a big ugly box in front of our house, using precious road improvement dollars on legal fees to haul us into court. As of yesterday [April 7], we received a new declaration newly submitted to the judge by someone we have never heard of before named “Debra Meier” who claimed to be the project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the firm handling engineering and environmental certification for the project.  From her submission, we believe as hype the entire ‘giant traffic signal box’ scenario propounded by city manager Rick Daniels as a justification for taking our property.  There is no giant box in the design plans that Meier has newly submitted on the record.
Further, this mapped plan, which we never saw before now, is the evidence that we needed to show that the city had already seized our land a few years ago and is definitely in trespass…and now wants the judge to legalize this wrongful trespass without any compensation to us at all for the city’s past use.  There are two underground utility vault type boxes for telephone utilities already partially on our land and the city’s existing sidewalk is partially on our land.  These “telephone vaults” are apparently used or operated by Frontier Communications, the local telephone company, so clearly Councilman Tony Frazier, who is a Frontier employee, likely had a conflict of interest when he voted to have the city begin the eminent domain process against us.   So in other words, up until yesterday [Tuesday, April 7], this plan map had been withheld from us, but apparently, because of our declarations to the judge showing that our land was not needed and that the city already had a sidewalk and room for the utility pole, the city had to show the engineered drawings to the court.  The drawings clearing show the city’s sidewalk and vaults in trespass.  So beyond what we see as the fraud of the city manager’s purportedly needed “giant box” and the councilman’s conflict of interest, we see this submission of evidence as an admission of the city’s existing trespass and guilt.
“We do not agree that the City has a right to take our property,” Musser-Lopez continued. “We absolutely do have a problem with the city’s motion for prejudgment possession and we continue to object to the city taking possession of our property particularly before a trial since the city has not proven its right to take. So there we were in ‘pro per’ battling City Hall in court and looking at the project closer when we found out that the city and Caltrans totally neglected to assess the impact of the project on numerous historic properties including a landmark corner of Route 66 and some 100 year old homes that are part of a larger downtown historic district.   I wrote about that in the Glimpse a few weeks ago. “The City, CalTrans and the Federal Highway Administration are not in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act as codified in 36 CFR 800 and they are certainly not exempt from the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) which makes it a crime to destroy archaeological properties.”
The city defends the project, maintaining its benefits more than offset the hardship imposed on any of the landowners, including the Lopez Family. Those in opposition are not considering, the city asserts, that 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan’s goals will be of benefit to the city and its residents.
City officials suggested Musser-Lopez is not seeing the big picture. The  Needles I-40 Interconnect Project and its completion, according to the city, represents an investment in “improving regional economic development and competitiveness, an effort to maximize mobility and accessibility for all people and goods in the region, ensure travel safety and reliability for all people and goods in the region, preserve and ensure a sustainable regional transportation system, protect the environment and health for our residents by improving air quality and
encouraging land use and growth patterns that facilitate transit and non-motorized transportation, such as biking and walking.”
But Musser-Lopez retorted that it is the city that is not considering what it is doing in the context of the interests of its residents and the preservation of historic vistas and resources.
“Many in our community think the project is a waste of public funds, will cause more harm than good and that it is wrong to bulldoze the landmark Route 66 corner median and other properties. There was not even an attempt to document that those historic resources  are here and now they will be gone,” Musser-Lopez said. “The city asserts that they are creating a two-lane connector route, but that is a fallacy. The route will go from two lanes to one lane then back to two lanes then to one lane again.The council nixed the option of a short ¼ mile non-stop elevated two lane boulevard in both directions, a connector route that would have alleviated pass through traffic in the local community. The council instead opted for ratcheting vehicles around three 90-degree turns with traffic signals. How can they say this is a two lane road in both directions? It’s not. It’s a wind-about path, with the city acquiring land where they can install their profit-making signage and set up traffic signals.”We will now get all the exhaust and fumes from trucks and vehicles stalled behind red lights.”

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