When the new City Council convenes for its first substantive meeting of the year, it will immediately plunge into one of the city's most emotionally charged and legally complex issues: the fate of Palo Alto's sole mobile-home park and its more than 400 residents.
The council is set to consider on Jan. 12 the rules that will be used during appeal hearings to determine whether Buena Vista Mobile Home Park on El Camino Real should be allowed to close. While the actual appeal hearings won't take place until at least late February, the January discussion will consider a host of procedural matters, including a request from the park owner to dismiss the appeal altogether.
The appeal was filed by the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Residents Association, a group that represents more than 80 percent of the residents in the low-income and largely Hispanic community. The group is challenging the October ruling by hearing officer Craig Labadie, who concluded that the park's owners, the Jisser family, met their legal burden by offering Buena Vista residents adequate assistance to ease their eviction from the park at 3980 El Camino, in the Barron Park neighborhood.
In issuing his ruling, Labadie made it clear that his decision was based on a reasoned analysis, not "emotion or sympathy." He also acknowledged that the closure of Buena Vista will have negative effects, including "disruption to the lives of the residents and their families" and a "loss of economic and cultural diversity for the City of Palo Alto."
Yet he ultimately found that the Jisser Family Trust has offered the roughly 400 residents a reasonable set of relocation benefits, which include three months of rent, moving expenses and a one-year rent subsidy that will cover the difference between their rents at Buena Vista and their new lodgings.
The appeal from the Public Interest Law Firm, which represents the residents, challenges this finding and argues that the financial assistance being offered by the Jissers is "inadequate"; that the residents were denied a fair hearing because the park owner never testified and because he revised his offer after the hearing concluded; and that Labadie erred in his interpretation of the term "reasonable cost of relocation" and in his determination that the California Relocation Assistance Act should not apply to this case. The appeal also argues that the mobile-home appraisals commissioned by the Jissers were low (with an average of $18,816) and "fail to reflect the in-place value of the mobile homes."
"These residents cannot purchase a home in comparable mobilehome park (even if available) or other comparable housing with such meager compensation," the appeal states.
Labadie's decision came after three days of hearings featuring testimony from dozens of residents from Buena Vista and the surrounding Barron Park area. Many pleaded for the Jissers to reconsider and stressed the challenges that the park's closure will pose for residents and their families, including children who would have to leave Palo Alto's schools.
Melodie Cheney, a park resident who serves as secretary of the residents association, said during the hearings that she had invested about $10,000 in improving her home just before she was notified in 2012 that the Jissers planned to close the park. Cheney called the Jissers' proposal to shutter Buena Vista "devastating" and said she was "terrified" by the prospect of losing her house and looking for a new place.
She noted that the park's location allows her to get to work easily by public transportation and makes her feel safe.
"When it comes to safety, the park is like my second family," Cheney said. "Like other people say, we watch out for each other. I feel safe in the park, being a single female."
One of the questions that the City Council will consider on Jan. 12 is whether these residents, like Cheney, should be able to testify during the appeal hearings. On this issue, as on just about every other, the attorneys for the two sides are very much at odds.
In the months since the appeal was filed, the lawyers have squabbled over whether the identities of all the residents in the association should be disclosed; the arguments in front of the council should be "informal" or subject to more rigid "quasi-judicial" procedures; and, most notably, whether the appeal should be heard at all.
Margaret Nanda, an attorney for the Jisser family, argued in an Oct. 20 letter to the Jisser family that the association cannot appeal the Labadie decision precisely because it is an association and local law only gives an "aggrieved person" the right to appeal.
"The fact that some of the residents at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park formed an association and that counsel who filed the appeal represent only those residents who are members of the Association does not in any way alter, amend or lessen the stated requirement in the ordinance that an aggrieved person must file an appeal," Nanda wrote.
Nadia Aziz, an attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which is representing the residents, countered that this argument is "without merit."
Aziz wrote that it would be "absurd" to eliminate standing from the residents association, given that the the association has been representing the residents throughout the entire process. She also noted that, during the hearings last May, Labadie equated the association with the "park residents generally, and declined to retain jurisdiction for individual resident appeals."
Since the Labadie decision, the Jissers' team has been trying to ascertain exactly which residents are involved in the appeal. So far, they have not had much luck. Buena Vista's attorneys decided earlier this month they will not provide the park owner with a list of people who are being represented by the appellant's legal team.
Melissa Morris, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Firm, notified Nanda that the park owner "is not entitled to individualized information regarding the association's membership."
She noted that the group currently includes 85 members, with membership being based on a household rather than individual basis. The park has 105 spaces, 98 of which were occupied at the time of the May hearings.
But Nanda argued in a later letter that it's critical for the park owner to know who is part of the association because only appellants are allowed to testify at the hearing. Nanda noted in a Nov. 14 letter to the city that there will "no doubt be individual mobile-home residents who will address the City Council as to the merits of the appeal."
"If individual residents address the City Council, then per the ordinance, they must be an aggrieved person, and because of the appeal filed on behalf of the association, they must in fact be members of the association," she wrote.
Nanda is also contesting a request by the residents association that the appeals hearing be a formal one, in which parties would be allowed to make opening statements, present live testimony, cross-examine witnesses and object during the other party's questioning of witnesses.
The procedures would also allow the general public to speak on the issue and require the two parties to submit closing briefs after the hearing and before the decision is made.
Nanda countered that many of the procedures proposed by the residents' attorneys are unnecessary. It's not clear, she noted, who would rule on "objections" during the testimony. Permitting objections, she added, "creates an adversarial and trial-like process, which is not typical of a City Council hearing." She also opposed giving the general public another chance to weigh in.
"In this matter, the park owner would submit that ... the public's opinion is irrelevant," Nanda wrote in a Nov. 20 letter to the city.
She also opposed having further written briefs and argued that the adequacy of the Jissers' latest Relocation Impact Report has already been "exhaustively briefed."
Though it will be up to the council to decide on Jan. 12 how extensive the proceedings should be, staff has offered its own proposal. City Attorney Molly Stump noted in a staff report that the hearing in front of Labadie already netted more than 900 pages of material for the council to review and said it's "reasonable to presume that further witness testimony and submission of new evidence on appeal was not intended" in the city's ordinance for closing the park.
The staff proposal calls for 30-minute presentations by the park owner and the appellants, followed by 15-minute rebuttals from each side. It would also give time for members of the public to address the council, though the draft procedures specify that public comment "will not be considered as a basis for the council's decision in this matter."
Under the proposal, the council's decision would be made available to both parties before it is officially adopted.