Columnist & Her Husband Force Delay In Needles’ Eminent Domain Plans

(June 24) A former Needles city councilwoman and her husband have forced a significant delay in the city of Needles’ current plans to undertake a more-than-one-mile-long road realignment project through the county’s smallest city.
The delay was brought about when Bob Lopez and Ruth Musser-Lopez convinced a judge to continue a hearing on the city of Needles’ request to obtain “prejudgment possession” of two sides of frontage the city is seeking to obtain through the eminent domain process. The couple was able to convince Judge David Cohn that the city had not proven that it needed all of the land it was attempting to acquire for the purposes it had stated, and had suggested to the court that the city was using the eminent domain process to land bank property for an undeclared future use.
On the morning of June 24, Cohn continued a prejudgement possession hearing to July 16, combining it with trial date setting for an evidentiary hearing for the city’s “right to take” claim on the property.
The Needles I-40 Interconnect 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 city is attempting to move the compromise project forward with supplemental federal assistance. It would connect the I-40 at the downtown J Street exit and direct traffic through three intersections of the town, create new traffic signals, and ostensibly fast track 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… guided by a series of goals and objectives aimed at the need to balance the many priorities in the most cost-effective manner.”
The city 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 could not all be served at once, but each had 30 days after service to file an answer in the San Bernardino Justice Center, 3.5 hours away from Needles. During the course of the month that followed, the first party named, Robert J. Lopez and Ruth Musser-Lopez, trustees of a family trust land, answered the complaint. Their property is located on a rare landmark corner of Route 66, which is scheduled to be demolished as a part of the project. Ruth, a professional archeologist, is a former member of the Needles City Council, who ran for State Senate last year. She has been a contributing author on occasion to the Sentinel’s Glimpse of SBC’s Past column.
In contesting the city’s eminent domain action, the Lopezes questioned whether the property the city was seeking to seize was necessary to complete the project. Moreover, they raised issues about the approval of the project and technical and procedural clearances the city had obtained for it that have now opened up a can of worms. The most significant of these appears to be the “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act the city conferred upon the project. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that an environmental impact report or assessment for federal projects that would adversely impact the environment or cultural resources be completed. And while categorical exceptions can be applied to projects which simply repave existing roads or make relatively minor adjustments to them, there is grave doubt that the city would be able to withstand a challenge of its exemption of a widening project that entails other significant changes to the roadway. This alone is threatening to complicate, delay and render more expensive the undertaking.
The city’s effort to have the prejudgment possession issue adjudicated before July 1 suggested that it was striving to get all of the property needed for the project under its control prior to the commencement of the 2015-16 fiscal year, perhaps to qualify for potentially available funding. The delay of the possession hearing until July 16 may have effectively nullified any such contemplated applications on the city’s part.
Mr. and Mrs. Lopez have also objected to the intended demolition of what Ruth Musser-Lopez called an “entire Route 66 historic landscaped median. The cultural resources and the historic district were totally ignored by the city. The curve and median are on the oldest maps that the city has and definitely were part of Route 66, and perhaps part of the older National Trails Highway. The only public hearing took place in 2007 when we thought the interconnect was going to be a direct route with an entirely different footprint that would skirt the edge of the golf course. Now that millions have been spent without one thing being built, the city is making an attempt to justify the same old confusing, roundabout truck route being used as the ‘interconnect. They threw a few traffic signals in to make it look legit.”
The Best, Best & Krieger attorney who has been representing the city in the eminent domain process, Kevin James Abbott, told Judge Cohn that he has a new position and would be leaving the firm and the case. Efforts by the Sentinel to reach him after the hearing were unsuccessful.
The Lopezes maintain that much of their property the city is seeking to obtain through the condemnation process is not needed for the project. Rather, they have suggested the city has future designs on the property it is attempting to acquire from them which have not been disclosed. She intimated she believed the city intends to erect signage along the I-40 route as some form of enterprise. The couple asserts that property seized through eminent domain must be used for a precise and pre-specified purpose.
Ruth Musser-Lopez said “It appears that the judge is going to look at whether or not the city has an emergency or immediate need to take our property. ‘Prejudgment possession’ means that the city would take our property before there is an evidentiary hearing.”
She said she had sought to lay before Judge Cohn what she believes are discrepancies in the city’s presentation and she is looking forward to the opportunity to make a fuller case on July 16.
“We get to argue law and the motion and the city’s so-called claimed ‘harm’ if they cannot immediately possess our property to build an unnecessary extra-wide sidewalk,” Musser-Lopez said. “We know that the sidewalk is an excuse and an afterthought to take the frontage property that they have not identified a plan for except ‘future uses.’
“We exposed the fact that their so called taking for a handicap ramp was bogus, since the ramp has already been installed on their land next to our property,” Musser-Lopez continued. “ As far as the traffic signal they want to install, there is plenty of room for it on their land abutting the highway, property that they took from us years ago.”

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