Palo Alto officials set the stage on Monday for an emotional battle over the future of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park when they affirmed the right of the park's roughly 400 residents to challenge a decision authorizing their displacement.
After a long discussion and testimony from a crowd of Buena Vista residents and their supporters, the City Council voted unanimously to affirm the right of the Buena Vista Residents Association to appeal a September decision by an administrative judge paving the way for the park's closure. In his decision, Craig Labadie found that the park's owner, Joe Jisser, offered the residents fair compensation for relocation from the 4.5-acre park in the Barron Park neighborhood.
Residents and their attorneys have consistently contended that the compensation offered by the Jisser family is insufficient and that Buena Vista's closure will cost them not just their homes, but also their jobs and their children's Palo Alto education.
These arguments, which played out over the course of a three-day hearing in front of Labadie in May, re-emerged during Monday's meeting, where the council was set to consider whether to allow the residents' appeal of Labadie's ruling to proceed.
Every speaker at the hearing with the exception of the Jisser family's attorney urged the council to hear the appeal, and to schedule it at a time and place that would make it easy for the residents and community members to attend and testify.
Some speakers stressed the importance of preserving Buena Vista, a primarily Hispanic community and a rare bastion of affordable housing in Palo Alto. Ruth Lowy was one of many Barron Park residents who spoke out in support of Buena Vista, and urged the council to find a compromise that would allow the Jissers to make money without displacing the families in the mobile-home park.
"No one is saying that the owner shouldn't get some money from this," Lowy said. "But you need to weigh in the balance dollars and people's lives and there has to be a reasonable in-between. I hope you take this very seriously."
Others emphasized Buena Vista's value in enriching the community bringing diversity to Palo Alto. But for residents, the issue was simpler. The compensation offered by the Jissers, they said, falls far short of what's needed to find a new place to live. The package includes three months of rent, the appraised value of each trailer home, moving expenses and a one-year rent subsidy covering the difference between their current rents and their new ones.
Melodie Cheney, secretary of the Residents Association, was one of several residents to plead with the council for a reprieve.
"There are other solutions to just closing the park. We have made offers to the owner, we are also looking into other things," Cheney said. "Buena Vista is my first home and I want to keep it."
Blanca Fonseca, who also lives at Buena Vista, framed the issue as one that has less to do with the city's diversity and more to do with basic human needs.
"It's not about being Hispanic," Fonseca said. "We're all humans. We need homes to survive."
After hearing from the residents and from the attorneys representing the two sides, the council swiftly rejected the argument from Jisser's attorney that the appeal shouldn't be allowed to proceed at all. The attorney, Margaret Nanda, pointed out that the local ordinance on mobile-home closures specifies that an "aggrieved person" will have a right to appeal the administer judge's ruling to the council. Because in this case the appeal is coming from a residents association rather than an individual, the appeal should be rejected outright.
"The issue of standing is critical to the appeals process," Nanda said. "If the association or an individual lacks standing to appeal, the appeal cannot go forward."
The attorneys for the residents strongly disagreed. Nadia Aziz and James Zahradka, both from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, both argued that the Residents Association should be allowed to go ahead with the appeal.
Zahradka said the residents are being "sandbagged in the last minute" by Nanda's attempt to undermine their standing. Aziz noted that the association, which was formed in 2012 to oppose the park's closure, has been representing the residents during every step of the process and should be allowed to continue to do so.
"It would be a violation of the ordinance and due process to not let the residents continue this appeal," Aziz said.
The council quickly rejected Nanda's argument and agreed that the appeal should be allowed to proceed.
"You said you'd like your day in court with us and we heard you," Councilwoman Liz Kniss told the crowd during the hearing. "That's clearly very important: that that chance be given."
With that decision made, the council's discussion shifted to the details of the appeals hearing. Attorneys for the Jissers argued for an informal meeting that relies largely on the voluminous testimony that has already been presented during last year's public hearings. Residents and their attorneys pulled for more formal proceedings, with witnesses, cross-examinations and the ability to object to statements made by the other side.
On this issue, neither side got exactly what it was looking for. The council agreed to largely go along with the recommendation of City Attorney Molly Stump, who proposed a process that includes 30-minute presentations from each side followed by rebuttals and a period for public comments.
The council also adopted a suggestion by Councilman Tom DuBois that each side have an expert witness who would testify for up to 10 minutes about the inference that should be drawn from and the weight that should be given to the record.
The council also directed each side to submit a statement laying out its case. These statements would be up to 10 pages long and they would be made available 21 days before the hearing begins, most likely some time in April.
The council unanimously adopted the procedures, paving the way for the city's final act in a closure process that has been proceeding for more than two years. Once the council issues its decision, any future appeals would have to go through the court system, Stump said.