The Half Moon Bay City Council has approved acquiring six empty land parcels in the West of Railroad area through eminent domain to protect the area’s habitat after the owners refused to sell.

“The decision to move forward in this manner was not taken lightly. The use of eminent domain is a very serious affair, but it can be used to achieve public purposes,” Vice Mayor Debbie Ruddock said.

The parcels are on an undeveloped lot between Railroad Avenue and the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail, with no development on the parcels. Residential neighborhoods on Railroad Avenue and Poplar Street are nearby, along with the Poplar Beach Parking Lot.

The City Council unanimously authorized the purchase through eminent domain of the parcels for the West of Railroad Planned Development area at its March 16 meeting. The city filed the eminent domain action March 23 in San Mateo County Superior Court. Local governments use eminent domain for a wide range of public purposes, like widening a road or acquiring property for open space.

The city made a Jan. 21 formal offer of $91,000 to purchase the properties after city appraisal, which the owners refused. There was no agreement in negotiations, leading to the city’s decision to proceed with eminent domain. The property value will be determined at trial or in a pretrial settlement where the owners, Thomas Gearing and Daniel Gearing, will have the opportunity to present their evidence of value. The two owners have filed civil suits in state and federal court.

Timothy Kassouni, a lawyer representing the two in their federal case, said the parcels were development lots worth more than the $91,000 offered by the city, and it needed to pay the highest market value. He said the two have been vocal about the right to develop, and the owners considered it a zone for future residential homes.

“Half Moon Bay has never adopted a specific plan for this area, and they should,” Kassouni said.

The city is using funds paid by the developer of the Pacific Ridge housing development project near Terrace Avenue, Ailanto Properties, to purchase the lots. Half Moon Bay received around $2.8 million for the Ailanto Project, of which around $200,000 has been spent. The Coastal Development Permit for the Ailanto Project required the city to acquire and retire legal lots using the funding to mitigate the project’s traffic impacts. The city is still open to discussing a resolution with the owners throughout the eminent domain process. The city was served with a separate March 22 federal lawsuit, alleging constitutional claims against the city, which the city said has no merit. The city is asking for an order granting possession of property 90 days after filing a motion for immediate possession.

The potential acquisition of the land will protect the habitat and scenic value of land west of Railroad Avenue, provide an area for green infrastructure to control drainage and manage erosion, mitigate traffic impacts, manage Coastal Trail erosion and maintain public access in the West of Railroad area. The bluffs that support the Coastal Trail adjacent to the development area are eroding, requiring the city to relocate the Coastal Trail west, which means acquiring parcels for the relocated trail.

The city also plans to acquire other parcels in the planned development area. Half Moon Bay recently sent notices of its decision to appraise to owners of five additional parcels. City staff is attempting to obtain the lots through voluntary purchase agreements and, if the city reaches an agreement with the owners, the City Council will vote on final approval.

City Manager Bob Nesbit said there is no timeline or requirement for purchasing the parcels. The city is currently interested in five other parcels on the lot area after county records showed the owners are behind on property tax maintenance, Nesbit said.

“We would be interested in buying all the parcels on that lot,” he said.

Councilman Harvey Rarback felt the area was an immense asset for the city, citing the scenic value and habitat.

“Dealing with erosion in the future is really important. I think it’s a sensible action that we are taking to acquire these properties. We don’t want to see them built up. We want to keep them vacant and beautiful. I’m entirely in favor of this action,” Rarback said.

Ruddock said she looked at the issue closely and was satisfied city staff met the requirements for eminent domain. Councilman Joaquin Jimenez said acquiring the land was important to protect the coast and Half Moon Bay’s beauty. Mayor Robert Brownstone said the acquisition would help protect the coast. Councilwoman Deborah Penrose supported the issue after following the thoroughness of city staff reporting on the subject.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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