In the heart of Silicon Valley, a new twist in an ongoing turf war is raising alarm among property rights groups – government officials in Palo Alto are threatening to use "eminent domain" to prevent the longtime owners of a mobile home park from turning the property into condos.
"The city and the county's actions have postponed the closure of the park for four years now and still, there's really no end in sight," said Joe Jisser, whose family bought the property in 1986.
Jisser’s family wants to take advantage of the red-hot California real estate market but repeatedly has said it doesn’t want to sell the property. However, over the summer, city and county officials partnered with a local housing authority to try and acquire the mobile home park through eminent domain, the power that allows governments to seize property in certain circumstances.
They defend the move as a fair compromise. "Eminent domain is an elegant solution," said Katherine Harasz, executive director of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority. "It acknowledges the owners' just right to just compensation, if the public purpose is established to use his property for this public purpose."
Harasz argues the public purpose is the welfare of some 400 low-income residents, many of whom are elderly and disabled and claim they can't afford to move out.
"We have nowhere else to go," said longtime tenant Melody Cheeny, who also serves as secretary for the park's homeowner's association. "There's no way, for 95 percent of us, to be able to live in this county, let alone Silicon Valley."
But Jisser, whose family is fighting the move in court, says the lack of affordable housing is not his fault, and that he should be able to redevelop his own property.
But to close the park, the city says he must pay tenants’ moving costs. And in pricey Palo Alto, an appraisal calculated those costs at about $8 million.
Jisser's lawyer calls that extortion, and doesn't buy the government's "public good" argument either.
"It's one thing to take property for a school or a road or a firehouse," said Larry Salzman, with the Pacific Legal Foundation. "Here, they're taking the Jissers’ private property for the benefit of other private individuals. That's flatly unconstitutional."
The Jissers say if the government can use eminent domain to block their redevelopment plans, then no property owner is safe.
Officials are currently appraising the mobile home park, and several lawsuits are pending, in a case being watched closely by property rights groups and tenants' advocates.