Victorville & Solar Energy Plant Developer Used Eminent Domain Threat To Shortchange Elderly Couple By $437,800

A property owner’s appeal of the Victorville Planning Commission’s approval of a solar project on the north end of the city has refocused attention on a chapter of city history in which city officials appear to have openly colluded with private developers to maneuver an elderly couple into selling their land for less than 17 percent of what it was worth, cheating them out of $437,800.
The well-documented incident is not the only time city officials, working in tandem with private sector interests intent on obtaining property in the possession of elderly and vulnerable landowners, have used the threat of eminent domain and accompanying intimidation tactics that employ governmental authority to in essence steal property or force its sale at bargain basement prices, another younger landowner who successfully fought off the land grab said.
This year, Middle River Power succeeded in reviving a long-dormant plan to construct a solar power facility on 642 acres on property within the Southern California Logistics Airport planning area located near the intersection of Helendale and Colusa Roads north of the airport runway, south of the Victorville city limit line east of Helendale Road and west of the Mojave River and Victor Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Bob Landwehr with his siblings owns a five-acre parcel that is located within the footprint of the site where Inland Energy, headed by Buck Johns, the original proponent of the solar power facility then referred to as Victorville II,  proposed to place the solar arrays. While some owners of the property Inland Energy coveted for the project agreed to sell their land to Inland Energy, other did not, and Inland Energy turned to the City of Victorville to help it acquire sufficient acreage to proceed with the project. Landwehr was among those targeted in the effort by the city in its use of eminent domain to seize by condemnation the property of those unwilling to sell. Landwehr, even in the face of the city’s threatened use of eminent domain, resisted giving up his and his siblings’ property. Before Inland Energy was able to complete Victorville II, in 2010 it postponed the undertaking and then gave up on it, in some measure because of serious mismanagement of the project and in some measure because of the downturn in the economy that began in late 2007 and intensified over the next several years.
Subsequently, Middle River Power, headed by Mark Kubow, sought to revive the project, with much of the discussion toward that end taking place behind closed doors at Victorville City Hall. Landwehr was unaware of the re-initiation of the project that was again on the verge of encircling his family’s property until he belatedly received a planning commission action notice in May of this year, informing him of the action Middle River Power and the city were taking that would impact the property, most notably by taking away the access easement, Martin Hollow Road, the Landwehrs used to access their property. The Landwehr family had not set up a residence on the property but made use of it, with the family and friends camping and picnicking there. Bob Landwehr wanted to keep it as a getaway property, with the option of developing it as a place to live at some indefinite point in the future. Though Middle River and its corporate subsidiary, HDSI, LLC, again considered and threatened to have the city use its power of eminent domain to obtain the Landwehrs’ property, ultimately a decision was made to forgo obtaining the family’s land and instead building the solar facility on the expanse of ground surrounding its five acres.
On July 10, 2019, the Victorville Planning Commission, by a vote of 4-to-0, approved the project. Landwehr then appealed the decision, citing the city’s violation of California Environmental Quality Act requirements and asserting that his land would essentially be taken from him as a consequence of the project development, that Middle River Power could not be trusted, that past land use decisions by the council were damaging to Landwehr and other land owners and that the action would eradicate the easement to the Landwehr property, Martin Hollow Road. Rob Kurth, a member of the planning commission who is a principal in the Kursch Group, a real estate company handling land acquisition for Middle River Power, did not participate in the planning commission vote. The remainder of the commissioners did take part in the vote, however, despite the financial interest of their commission colleague in the project.
At the council meeting on Tuesday, the city council heard the appeal, ultimately voting 4-to-1, with Councilwoman Blanca Gomez in the minority, to deny Landwehr’s appeal. Along the way, however, Landwehr referenced what had occurred to two of his neighbors – Christopher and Linda Iseman – at the hands of the city and Middle River Power.
The Isemans were full-time residents at 13612 Martin Hollow Road. They owned two 5-acre parcels (APN 0460-242-07 & 0460-242-08). In December of 2008, the Isemans signed an agreement to accept a purchase offer from Epic Land Solutions, which was hired by the City of Victorville to acquire parcels for the Victorville II footprint. Epic Land Solutions appraised each five-acre parcel at $261,000. The offer to the Isemans thus stood at $522,000. Prior to Epic Lands Solutions handling the land purchase offers for Victorville II, bidding on the needed properties was being conducted by Bill Johns from Inland Energy, Inc. Inland Energy, Inc was offering $55,000 per 5-acre parcel. Bill Johns is Buck Johns’ son.
At one point, the Iseman’s had found a buyer for their property, which is proximate to the Mojave River and upon which there is a well, for $400,000. The buyer backed out, however, after being informed by Inland Energy and the city that there was an eminent domain hold on the property.
The Isemans later received a letter from the city attorney’s office claiming that their parcels were no longer needed for Victorville II. This was a prevarication. The Isemans’ parcels were both identified as being part of the land needed for the solar array for Victorville II and subject to “eminent domain” according the California Energy commission licensing case that was still active when the Isemans sold their 10 acres to HDSI, Inc., as the corporate intermediary for Middle River Power, in August of 2017.
On February 17, 2009 Linda Iseman appeared for public comment at that evening’s city council meeting. There she put on the record how, after she and here husband were victimized by vandals who had illegally damaged their property, city officials doubled down, illegitimately using municipal authority to persuade them to just give up and sell their property. She said that she and her husband had been cited by code enforcement for a mobile home that was abandoned on Martin Hollow Road, which blocked the Isemans’ access to their home. At that time, Jim Cox was there in his then-capacity as city manager. Mrs. Iseman complained about how the city reneged on the purchase of their property, as well. She talked about her husband losing his job after the Alcoa plant closure in Vernon, and being unable to feed her horse.
At a subsequent point there were only two parcels that the city did not own for the Victorville II portfolio. One of those other parcels was owned by the Landwehrs, who were resisting the pressure to sell and contested the application of eminent domain. In 2011 the court ordered that the property be returned to those owners. The city was by that time having difficulty unloading the Victorville II project to any other potential buyers because Buck Johns, the original proponent on the project, had layered a clause into the agreement that no matter who developed the power plant he was to get five percent of the net profit from the operation. As efforts to package the deal proceeded,  HDSI, Inc. pressured the Isemans, who were still under the threat of eminent domain, to let go of the property for $84,200.
Some of those who have examined the case observe that it appears the city was party to what was tantamount to theft. Others are slightly more charitable, saying that it needed to be noted that the Isemans had received something – $84,200 – and that technically this did not constitute theft. Rather, they said, the city merely assisted HDSI and Three River Power in cheating the Isemans out of $437,800. When the Isemans’ name was brought up during this week’s city council meeting, Jim Cox, who was Victorville city manager from 1969 until 1999 and then served as city manager again from 2009 until 2011 before retiring once more and being elected to the city council in 2012 and reelected in 2016, somewhat nervously asked Landwehr if he was the Isemans’ legal representative.
Landwehr said he was not representing the couple, who, records indicate, have moved to South Carolina.
The Sentinel reached Cox this afternoon. Asked if the city would consider looking into having HDSI and/or Three River Power adjust the $84,200 they had been paid for the property upward by $437,800 to match the fair market appraisal on the property, Cox said, “I don’t know.”
Cox, who in 2013 while serving as Victorville’s mayor was a prime mover in extending the 5-year licensing agreement for what had been the Victorville II project including the eminent domain authorization to obtain property for the undertaking, did say that an effort should be made to determine if the city’s past misrepresentations and the underhanded tactics employed by Inland Energy and then HDSI on behalf of Three River Power had resulted in the Isemans being defrauded.
Cox acknowledged that he had taken action as city manager in 2009 that might have inadvertently resulted in the city undercutting the Isemans as they were acceding to the offer to have them part with their property.
“I came back to the city in January 2009,” Cox began, explaining, “I was interim manager for 90 days and I was trying to figure out what the debt was and where we were going financially. On April 1 [2009], I was hired as the permanent city manager. The first thing I did was was cancel all contracts relating to buying property north of the base [former George Air Force Base, now Southern California Logistics Airport]. All of this was new to me and if there was any question about the need for the property or there was any litigation or if the property owner had not sold, I canceled the purchase.  At that point or shortly thereafter, it became evident they [Inland Energy] could not proceed with the power plant which was then called Victorville II. There was a whole lot of litigation, and so I talked to the attorney for the city and he confirmed we had the power of eminent domain, and I was told they had used eminent domain. Some people had fought that in court including the fellow that was there this week [Bob Landwehr]. When the whole thing was done, we came up with a policy that unless you are going to use the property within a five-year period you could not move on with eminent domain. If the project was canceled the city could not sell bonds and we were in a suit with General Electric [over the loss of $50 million the city had to pay for failure to take delivery of power plant turbines that had been ordered]. The city could not sell bonds and as they were going further with the project we told them [Inland Energy] ‘If you don’t own it [the land for the project] stop all of the proceedings.’ We went on to win the lawsuit [with the Carter & Burgess engineering firm over the design flaws and delays in the Foxborough Power Plant project, which was being managed by Inland Energy]. That land stood vacant for years, and then an individual [Mark Kubow of Three River Energy] came in who wanted to put a solar plant in there. But everything was on hold – the plans, the permits, the approval – because the project had been stopped. It came back to the council to see if the council wanted to move on that to lease the property to the individual [i.e., Three River Power] and the council said, ‘Of course we do. We can’t just let the property sit there.’”
Upon hearing about what had happened to the Isemans, Cox said, “I asked the attorney to provide me with the details. I didn’t know if the offer was made, when the offer was made, who made the offer, whether it was someone who worked for the city or an agent of the city or an agent of the proponent. The only one who would have that information is Keith Metzler, our city manager. Looking at the staff report for the first time, I saw details of what was going on. I listened to what he [Landwehr] said. What he was referring to was not his property, and we were there for the appeal about his property. We voted to uphold the planning commission because he didn’t deliver any new information [relating to his own property]. I drove out to the site and I could see it is vacant. He and his family camp there from time to time and there are others who camp there, I believe without his permission, but that individual did not deliver any new information, so we upheld the planning commission decision. Now, maybe he can force an environmental impact report to be done for the project.”
What was new to him, Cox said, was the information, incidental to Landwehr’s appeal, about the Isemans.
“It struck me as odd that they were made an offer and it was purchased at a different price,” Cox said. “I want the city attorney to look at that and see what occurred. I do not recall at any time anything coming back to the council where we were asked to make a condemnation. I don’t know if someone threatened them with condemnation, but I want to find out. I need the facts to see if it did occur or didn’t, and if there was a misrepresentation or an abuse of discretion. We represent all of the residents of the city and I think we have to make sure the city didn’t do anything wrong. I had several years of not being involved and I didn’t have authority at the time the condemnation process was in use, so I don’t know what that was about, at all. Since I have been on the council, I have no recollection of us being asked to approve any eminent domain condemnation.”
Landwehr told the Sentinel that Victorville’s use of eminent domain authority to blow landowners out of their property was par for the course.
“In 2007, I made the mistake of believing a deputy city attorney and Bill Johns while attempting to negotiate the land sale of my aunt’s property (APN 0460-242-04),” Landwehr said. “At the time I had complained to the city about the strong-arm tactics of threatening eminent domain, which scared my aunt into selling. She sold her property for $67,500. Fifteen months later, $261,000 was offered to the remaining property owners. The e-mail that I had sent to the deputy city attorney complaining about not being aware that Aunt Fran was by law entitled to an independent appraisal of her property paid for by Victorville was later viewed by three deputy city attorneys who each billed the city for reviewing it.”
His aunt has not been made whole, Landwehr indicated, by the city or anyone else.
Sue Jones, Victorville’s public information officer, did not respond by press time to a host of questions the Sentinel had posed about the city’s use of the eminent domain process as tool to pressure property owners to sell their land at prices below fair market value.
-Mark Gutglueck

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