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Friday, December 19, 2003
“Am I boring you?": Livingston commission ignores residents’ pleas over plan

By Deon Lackey, Chronicle Staff Writer

Worried residents came out in force Monday night to protest Livingston’s new urban renewal plan and its corresponding “blight” ordinance.

Almost 40 people showed up to the regular commission meeting Dec. 15. Ten of them spoke up against the proposed urban renewal plan.

The plan designated downtown Livingston and surrounding residential areas as “blighted,” according to a list of state definitions, and sets up an Urban Renewal Agency The Agency has the power to appraise property, order improvements, condemn and “acquire property by any legal means” and dislocate families or businesses if the condition of the property is substandard or if the property isn’t being used “appropriately.” There is no appeals process outlined in the ordinance, which was one of the major concerns of homeowners. Elderly residents are determined a “blighting influence” because of the higher-than-average number of ambulance calls in those neighborhoods.

The S-Bar-S trailer park, which is potentially up for annexation next year, has already been named as blighted, and the Citizens’ Coordinating Committee recommended that it be razed and the people, primarily young families and elderly residents, be relocated.

The ordinance also sets up a tax increment district. Taxes are set using 2003 values as a baseline; all future increases are set into a special fund to cover “voluntary or compulsory” improvements to properties, which would then raise property values and increase taxes even more. These improvements could be covered by grants from the city or by low interest loans given to businesses by the Alliance Development Corporation.

It was a record-long meeting, lasting well-past midnight; nearly three hours of debate revolving around the urban design plan and two proposed tax-increases.

It was the second and last public reading of the renewal ordinance, which was initially passed Dec. 1. The Urban Renewal Plan wasn’t released to the public until Dec. 4, and, Dec. 5, the city sent out letters to area residents and business owners, informing them that their homes and businesses were in the urban renewal district and making the urban renewal plan available.

The city commission invited Joel Reinholz, one of the members of the Citizens’ Coordinating Committee and a local businessman, to speak about the urban renewal plan before opening the floor to public comment. Reinholz and Cindi Fargo, director of the Alliance Development Corporation and a member of the committee, spent the rest of the discussion at the table with the commissioners, and they were the ones primarily answering questions.

“They may be willing to dislocate people and relocate families,” said Sandra Miller, the fourth resident to speak against the renewal plan.

When told by Fargo that would be decided “fairly,” Miller responded suspiciously, “Fairly according to…?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Fargo said, “unless there was an absolutely clear public safety issue, (and then) it would be voluntarily, not mandatorily at all.”

“Tax wise, how is this going to affect my ownership of my home?” questioned Dixie Burlingame. “If the city is about to come to my home and say this is what you have to do, this is what you have to pay.”

“The Urban Renewal Plan states to the contrary (of Fargo’s statements),” said Ann Hallowell, “that (the Agency) does have the power to take private land and drag private landowners to court. I understand that a lot of this (power) has been granted to the city by the state, but I think it’s very important that these things stay in the hands of the city and not the Agency. It doesn’t say that here. The Agency could take a private property owner to court if they didn’t paint their house the appropriate color. Just to simplify things.”

“They probably could,” said Bruce Becker, the city attorney, “but that would have to go through my office first.” Becker said twice in the meeting that the only recourse individual property owners had was to go to state court.

“This is what you’re telling us to do,” said Brenda Adams, “however, we’ve been burnt, burnt bad. It is important to have the security and language of this, as such, that there is this safeguard (of appeal). It’s our money that’s going to pay for it. We deserve it. The people who are paying are going to just keep paying and paying and paying until they have to sell their houses.” Adams was the third resident to mention having to sell their homes because of the increased burden the city could put on them.

After he got the letter Dec. 5, “I hit the ceiling, smelling trouble,” said Rick Pittendorfer. “There are a lot of people who’ve left. The burden is getting rough (on taxpayers). It’s really getting down to where people are thinking contingency. Thoughts like this have been circulating.” Pittendorfer said his business has been down 50 percent since January and that almost a third of the mailers sent to patrons of his ballet company were returned, from over 120 people who had moved without a forwarding address. “That’s spooky,” he said.

At this point, Vicki Blakeman, the commission chair, laid her head on her hand like she was tired. “Ma’am,” he said, “am I boring you? I think what I’m saying is pretty important, and I don’t think I’ve been talking too long. You’re going to see the end of certain businesses in town, and that includes mine.” Blakeman said he’d been talking for fifteen minutes and he should wrap it up.

Kevin Lackey, another resident, apologized at the beginning of his speech for sounding hostile. “You’re giving yourselves the right to compel me to ‘improve’ my property because I have the misfortune to live in this district,” he said. “You tell people taxes aren’t going to go up. If they don’t, you won’t get any money. They’re going to go up on compulsory improvements. Compelling me to spend money on my home is an unreasonable seizure. Sending someone to my home to appraise it without my permission is an unreasonable search.

“They’re great goals,” Lackey continued. “Spend your money. Or be honest and tell the people you’re going to raise their taxes. If you can get elected after that, go ahead. We’re already resigned you’re going to pass it, and there’s not a stinking thing (we) can do until (we) go to state court.” Lackey sat down as applause erupted from the room.

“I’m just a little upset to hear so many negatives,” said Mary Beebe, commissioner elect, and the only member of the public to speak in support of the plan. “The powers invested in this plan have nothing to do with what they’re going to do to you.”

“I have been an advocate of this plan for well over a year now,” Commissioner Sheryl Dahl said. Dahl said in the meeting that she owns a building in the downtown business district and said that she looked forward to getting help from the city on renovations and maintenance on her building. “What we will get is an opportunity for those of us who do own property in the district to work cooperatively with the city to get funding for those improvements,” she added. “I look at it as a win-win situation.”

“There really is no smoking gun here, no black helicopter,” echoed Commissioner Bob Ebinger. “We’re up here looking for solutions to improve the downtown core of Livingston.”

Commissioner Lenny Gregrey disagreed, saying he had shared the citizens’ concerns “since day one.” “You are putting your trust in the future,” he told the commissioners and the committee members, “and you don’t know who’s going to be up here. If (the new commissioners) have a whacko idea for you, you won’t be able to get them for four years. I got news for you, if they don’t want to, you can never influence (the commissioners).” Gregrey said trying to talk with the committee members while they were making the plan was “like I was speaking to a wall. I got the concept of what you were trying to do,” he concluded, “but, sorry, I can’t buy it.”

Despite reassuring the citizens attending that in the future, appeals, problems and concerns would be addressed by the commission and that the commission listens and acts on requests from citizens, Blakeman voted for the ordinance, as did Dahl and Ebinger. “I see this as a way to do what we want to do without the legal strictures we’ve had to operate under,” Blakeman said in her final comments.