In a decision that may signal the end of the road for Palo Alto's only mobile-home park, city officials on Tuesday affirmed the property owner's right to shut down the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council officially approved the Jissers' closure application, paving the way for the family to commence the six-month process of evicting the park's roughly 400 residents. In a decision that several council members characterized as difficult but fair, the council also directed staff to hire an appraiser to review the methodology in the Relocation Impact Report, which analyzed how much residents should receive in relocation assistance.
Despite the emotional testimony from residents and attorneys at the Tuesday meeting, the council's vote was in some ways a foregone conclusion. On April 14, members unanimously approved the closure application on a tentative basis when they rejected an appeal from the Buena Vista Residents Association, which challenged the adequacy of the Relocation Impact Report. Yet in a nod to the residents' concerns, the City Council also agreed on Tuesday to hire an appraiser who would conduct a peer review of the appraisal in the Relocation Impact Report. The council also agreed to allow each resident to appeal the appraisal of his or her property to a hearing officer within 30 days.
The council's decision to commission a peer review was prompted by concerns that the prior appraisal, conducted by David Beccaria of Beccaria & Weber, failed to specifically consider the city's vaunted school system and safe conditions in determining the value of living in Palo Alto.
After the council directed Beccaria on April 14 to revise his methodology and specifically include schools and safety, Beccaria responded with a scathing letter in which he declined to perform the assignment and accused the council of pressuring him.
Prior to Tuesday's hearing, attorneys for the Buena Vista Residents Association argued that the city should hire a different appraiser and start the process anew. Given Beccaria's decision not to revise the methodology, the Buena Vista Residents Association argued that "the best course of action is to relieve Mr. Beccaria of his appraisal duties and hire an appraiser who is willing to comply with the City Council's directive," wrote Kyra Kazantzis, directing attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which is representing the mobile-home park residents.
The Jissers' attorney, Margaret Nanda, countered that local law does not require schools and safety to be specifically considered in relocation assistance and accused the council of rewriting the law on the fly. By insisting on the revised scope, Nanda argued, the council "has skirted the border of influencing appraisals with political ideology."
"The City Council is clearly not a licensed appraising body," Nanda wrote in a memo prior to Tuesday's hearing. "The City Council has no authority to engage in the act of appraising by amending an appraiser's scope of work particularly with the unabashed intention of affecting the valuation outcome of the appraisals."
By opting for the peer review, the council charted a middle course. Councilman Greg Scharff made the motion to go ahead with the review, which was suggested by City Attorney Molly Stump, and his colleagues quickly added their voices of support.
"I think this is a fair process that takes into consideration the concerns that have been raised today," Scharff said. "I think it's the right approach."
Councilman Cory Wolbach agreed, though he also stressed the need to reach some sort of conclusion in a process that officially kicked off in November 2012, when the Jisser family filed its closure application.
"It should go onward. It should be resolved and this chapter in the story of Buena Vista should be closed in a reasonable time, so that all parties can move forward with whatever next steps they should pursue," Wolbach said.
In its discussion, the council reiterated several times that its options are limited. With its role in the hearing process more akin to a judge than to a legislative body, the council struggled to address the concerns of the park's residents without infringing on the Jissers' right to sell their land.
Nanda argued in both her written and oral testimony that the council failed miserably in the latter task. She accused the council of a "blatant overreach" in its attempt to modify the scope of appraisals and contended that the appeal process for individual appraisals is "entirely procedurally improper" and "must be dismissed."
The process, which allows Buena Vista residents to challenge their appraisals in front of a hearing officer, is not in the city's closure ordinance, she wrote in a brief. By adding it to its approval of the closure application, the council "has stepped outside the limitation of its own Ordinance and engaged in the act of legislation not adjudication," she said.
Nanda also strongly objected to a February decision by City Manager James Keene to set aside $8 million to assist with a possible purchase of Buena Vista, subject to the council's approval.
In her letter, she characterized Keene's action as evidence that he is advocating against the park's closure. The city manager, she wrote, "acted in a way that was prejudicial to my client and has tarnished the procedural fairness of this appeal proceeding.
"The Jisser family's rights have been infringed upon as well as their trust in the fairness of this proceeding," she wrote.
By approving the closure application, the council is now free to revert to its usual role as a legislative body and come up with other ways to assist the residents of the low-income and mostly Hispanic community.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a leading proponent of preserving Buena Vista, has already cobbled together nearly $11 million in county funds that can be added to the city's contribution for a possible purchase of the park. Last month, the county selected the housing nonprofit The Caritas Corporation to put together an offer for the Jissers to consider.
Yet Nanda stressed Tuesday that her client will not be pressured to sell the site.
"I want to make it clear to the council that the park owner intends to exercise a constitutional right and it's a constitutional right that every property owner has in the City of Palo Alto, the County of Santa Clara and the State of California," Nanda said. "It will sell its property when it deems appropriate to whom it chooses and for an amount it deems acceptable. It will not yield to pressure from the city to do anything but that."
James Zahradka, supervisor attorney for Law Foundation Silicon Valley, urged the council Tuesday not to approve the closure application until it gets a new appraisal. After the hearing, Zahradka called the council's vote to deny the residents' appeal "disappointing," but called the peer review that the council commissioned "very important."
"It gives a chance for at least that aspect of the relocation assistance to be fair," Zahradka told the Weekly. "It's a big step, a big improvement over what was gonna be a very low-balled appraisal by an appraiser who we thought was compromised."
Even so, the vote dealt a blow to the residents, who found themselves staring at the prospect of imminent displacement. Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Residents Association, said the residents are "very disappointed" by the vote to approve the closure application and suggested that the city could have done a bit more. Yet she told the Weekly that the council's decision to commission the peer review will at least allow the residents to get a fair review on the appraisals.
"I don't think you can ever be mentally prepared," she said. "Since it's been such a long process, you're thinking this whole time is that we've been positive and that something good will come out of this. Joe Simitian is ... trying to put resources together to save the park. You don't really think that the day is finally here. Until now."
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.