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Rohnert Park authorizes use of eminent domain for casino road widening

Jeff Frye, left, and Wayne Hepner work on on the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ PD
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 7:24 a.m.

Rohnert Park on Tuesday asserted its power of eminent domain, finding it is in the public's interest to condemn and purchase parts of several properties on Wilfred Avenue, which is being widened to accommodate the Indian casino under construction just outside the city.

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Jeff Frye, left, and Wayne Hepner work on on the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ PD

The affected properties together equal just under an acre of land, most of it outside the city limits. A judge must now determine their respective values. Property owners who have so far rejected the city and tribe's offers as inadequate can also submit their own land appraisals.

Chris Christoforidis, whose parents own a 3-acre parcel at Wilfred and Langner avenues, said the problem was about more than the $12,900 the city and tribe had offered for the 12,209 square feet it needs for an easement. The city has proceeded without regard for his parents' wishes, he said.

"The money is not the point, it's the communication, it's the eminent domain," he said outside the City Council chambers.

He said to the council: "In the future, when the land will be able to be developed, what are we going to be faced with, what are we going to be left with?"

He was the only property owner to address the council Tuesday night.

The city and Sonoma County in September signed an agreement with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria that the tribe will bear the full $10 million cost of the road project, an improvement that the federal government required as part of its approval of the Graton Resort & Casino.

But in making the case to the council that eminent domain was the proper course, Assistant City Manager Darrin Jenkins distanced the action from the $800 million casino project, one of the most divisive developments in North Bay history.

The widening of Wilfred Avenue, Jenkins said, was outlined in the city's general plan, adopted in 2000, "long before any discussion of casinos came to Rohnert Park."

"This is the community's vision for growth in the city," he said.

He said agreements have been reached with owners of 17 other properties that included land needed for the project.

Casino construction is speeding along -- it is expected to open late this year -- and with it the prospect of a projected 11,000 more vehicle trips a day on Wilfred Avenue.

"We are at the point where we need to know with certainty when the (widening) project will be constructed," Jenkins said, noting that while the tribe is paying for it, the city is implementing it.

"It is very important that we minimize disruption to our residents and nearby business as a result of the casino," he said.

Negotiations are continuing with the property owners who have not accepted the city and tribe's offers, "and we hope to reach agreement," he said.

He asked the council to approve resolutions that found it in the public's interest to initiate the eminent domain process.

The council did so without discussion, on four separate 5-0 votes.

The affected property owners now are pinning their hopes on convincing a judge that their land is worth more than the city and tribe offered them.

For Tawny Tesconi, that means another appraisal of the 2½-acre property she owns with 12 family members at Dowdell Lane and Wilfred Avenue. They have been offered $79,600 by the tribe and city for a permanent easement of 10,975 square feet that contains a rental house that would be demolished, and for a temporary easement of 85,421 square feet to be used during construction.

But the land was appraised for the purposes of the offer as farmland, while the family has been paying taxes on it as a commercial property, she said.

"We disagree with their deciding to value it as farmland," Tesconi said, "but even as farmland we feel it was incorrectly appraised."

(Tesconi's brother, Tim Tesconi, was a longtime reporter for The Press Democrat and is one of the property's owners. His wife is Catherine Barnett, the newspaper's executive editor. She does not have a financial interest in the property. The couple's sons have a share in the property.)

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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