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Sunday, January 15, 2006
  Private Land Seized for Public Use To Be Sold To Democrat Donor
A year after Los Angeles seized three acres from a private company to construct a public building, but now a city councilman wants to sell the land to another private firm for a commercial development.

Both companies are furniture manufacturers. But executives with the company that would buy the land have political connections and have made $17,600 in campaign contributions to key city leaders.

Critics of the proposal say it's wrong for the city to use its power of eminent domain to take property from one business for a public purpose and then sell it to another business.

"It strikes me as an extraordinarily blatant abuse of eminent domain," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

The city's initial plan was to use the site for a new South Los Angeles animal shelter. The city paid $5.8 million to buy the property with money raised by a bond issue that voters approved to expand animal services.

But councilman Bernard C. Parks, who is spearheading the plan and represents the area, says the public would benefit more if the land were used for a business.

"It's one of the last inner-city industrial areas, and so we are trying to ensure that it continues to develop," he said. "The original proposal impairs the growth of a major economic development."

The previous owners of the property, which includes three warehouse buildings, said the city betrayed them.

Their furniture-manufacturing firm had 20 years of success in South Los Angeles, said Scott Vaughan, a partner in Vaughan Benz, which has moved to near Chinatown. "It was thriving."

Under the deal proposed by Parks, Cisco Bros., a furniture design and manufacturing firm, would acquire the site in the 5900 block of South Western Avenue to expand the adjacent L.A. Design Center.

Among some city officials, the proposal to sell the seized land has raised some eyebrows.

"I really do feel uncomfortable about it," said James W. Odom, a member of an oversight committee .

Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, declined to provide details of the legal analysis. "The evaluation is still in process," he said.

Francisco Pinedo, president of Cisco Bros., said Delgadillo is sympathetic to the proposal.

The firm and its executives have donated to the campaigns of several politicians whose support is essential to the deal.

Delgadillo, whose office must provide legal justification for the change in the project, has received $13,600 in contributions from two Cisco Bros. executives in the last five years, including a $5,600 check in June to his campaign for state attorney general.

The two executives contributed $1,000 to Parks' 2003 campaign for City Council, and gave $1,500, most of it last year, to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would have to sign off on the deal.

The contributions came from Francisco Pinedo, the president, and Alba Pinedo, a co-owner of the firm.

Francisco Pinedo envisions his furniture business using some of the space on the site but leasing much of it to other design and architecture-related firms.

Vaughan said the neighborhood lost about 50 jobs when he and his tenants had to relocate. Pinedo estimates that his development of the site will result in at least 100 people working there.

When Vaughan Benz initially refused to sell its property, the city attorney's office oversaw the filing of an eminent domain lawsuit.

To justify using condemnation powers, the city attorney and City Council had to make a finding that "the public interest and necessity require" such extraordinary action. The council report justifying the action said the property was needed for "public purposes."

"At the time it was condemned, it was condemned for the right reasons," he said. "But as it was evaluated and the city took control over it, we realized it was better suited for something else."

But Parks and others began to talk publicly about their preference that the site be used for the Cisco furniture mart more than a year before the City Council approved a final settlement.

That could raise the question of whether the city knew it intended to use the site for another use at the time it reached the settlement, Coupal said. If so, that might undermine the city's claim that it can legally make the switch.

Christopher Sutton, an attorney specializing in eminent domain law, said a city can legally change its plans for use of the property as long as it genuinely intended to use the site for a public purpose when it began condemnation proceedings.

Coupal's group hopes to qualify an initiative for the November state ballot that would outlaw the use of eminent domain to benefit private developers.

That move follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that approved the plan of New London, Conn., to force some homeowners to sell their properties for a private development.

"It's not right. It's not fair," Coupal said. "The power of eminent domain should only be used for public purposes, not including economic development to the extent you hand property over to another developer."
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