In the latest skirmish in the long and emotional battle over Palo Alto's sole mobile-home park, the owners of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the City of Palo Alto, accusing it of imposing "unconstitutional" conditions in exchange for permission to shut down the park.
The lawsuit from the Jisser family, which was filed Thursday by attorney Lawrance Salzman of Pacific Legal Foundation, seeks to remove the conditions that the City Council approved in May for the closure of Buena Vista, a mobile home park in the Barron Park neighborhood that houses about 400 mostly low-income residents. Filed in the U.S. District Court, the suit also seeks to deal a blow to the city's Mobilehome Park Conversion Ordinance, which was adopted in 2001 as a measure to protect the park's residents in the event of closure. The ordinance, as it's applied to the Jisser Family, violates the family's rights to withdraw their property from the rental market and convert the site at 3980 El Camino Real to new use, the suit contends.
The Jissers have been trying to close Buena Vista since the the fall of 2012, and they reached a milestone last spring when the City Council unanimously approved the fifth iteration of the "relocation impact report" -- a legally required document that lays out the Jissers' compensation to residents who would be evicted. The report was also the subject of a three-day public hearing in front of an administrative judge, who in October 2014 signed off on the document despite emotional testimony from Buena Vista residents and their supporters. They argued that shutting down Buena Vista would not only displace hundreds of residents but also deal a heavy blow to the city's stock of affordable housing. The council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors have each committed $14.5 million to the purchase of Buena Vista from the Jissers and earlier this year tapped nonprofit developer Caritas Corp. to negotiate the purchase with the Jisser family. In September, shortly after the Buena Vista residents filed their own lawsuit against the city, the Jissers declared that they would no longer negotiate the sale.
As part of the city's approval of Buena Vista's closure, the Jisser family is required to offer residents funding to relocate, which includes the cost of each mobile home, start-up costs for the new housing, moving costs, rent subsidies for a year (totaling the difference between rents at Buena Vista and the reasonable expenses for overnight stays at motels or hotels during the relocation process.
Recent appraisals, according to the suit, indicate that the family would have to pay about $8 million to the tenants -- payments that the family calls "oppressive and unreasonable."
"The city's ordinance forces the Jisser family to either bear the unconstitutional conditions imposed on them ... or to suffer the permanent physical occupation of their property by tenants that they now want to exclude from the land," the suit states.
"In effect, the Jisser Family has been told that they must choose between an unconstitutional taking of their money and an unconstitutional taking of their land," the brief states.
In the suit, as well as in a video that that Pacific Legal Foundation posted to accompany the complaint, the family makes the case that the city is effectively extorting them by requiring them to pay a huge sum of money to help solve a problem that the city itself created: the lack of affordable housing. The monetary demand, the suit states, "has nothing to do with any public costs caused by the Jisser family's desired closure of the park but is an attempt to make the Jisser family alone pay to mitigate the city's lack of affordable housing costs that, in fairness, should be borne by the whole public of Palo Alto."
The video, which includes commentary from Salzman and Joe Jisser, makes a similar case. It recaps his family's history with Buena Vista, a site that served as a tourist camp in the mid-1920s and became a mobile home park in the 1950s. Toufic and Eva Jisser, who moved to the United States from Israel in 1973, bought the property in 1986, according to the suit, and have operated the park ever since. Their son, Joe, manages the park today.
In the video, Joe Jisser said that while the business "does OK," the family decided that it "made the most sense to retain the property and look at a development that would work within the city's guidelines." He said in the video that the council's decision was "really shocking and frustrating to say the least," as it became apparent that "it would cost in the upper millions of dollars just to get out of the rental business."
"I know there are a lot of other families in this business who will be treated the same way if someone doesn't stand up to the city," Jisser said.
City Attorney Molly Stump said the city is "confident that the city followed both state law and the process that is set out in our own municipal ordinance related to the closing of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park."
"There is no merit to these claims," Stump said in an email to the Weekly.
The decision by the Jisser family to sue the city means that the city is now facing lawsuits from both sides in the bitter debate. In late August, attorneys representing the Buena Vista Residents Association filed their lawsuit against the city, arguing that the city denied the residents a fair hearing and that by approving the closure application, the council failed in its duty to promote fair housing. The lawsuit from the residents asks the Santa Clara County Superior Court to prohibit the Jissers from closing the park.
Stump said the city is preparing a response and expects the matter to "move forward in the first part of the year."
While the Jissers, in their lawsuit, describe the relocation assistance as onerous and illegal, the residents argue in their complaint that the package is in fact "grossly inadequate" and that it will eliminate "any opportunity for Buena Vista residents to relocate to comparable homes in a community comparable to Palo Alto."
"Instead, virtually all Buena Vista families will be forced to leave Palo Alto," Kyra Kazantzis, attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, wrote on behalf of the residents. "Many will be forced to leave the Bay Area altogether, meaning that they will be leaving their jobs, schools, health care providers, friends and community."
In a statement Thursday, attorneys from Law Foundation indicated that they are "currently evaluating the lawsuit and how it affects the residents' legal rights."
"The lawsuit comes as a surprise since it seems to challenge the City's approval of a relocation plan that the park owner himself advocated for," the statement said.
Though the Law Foundation had itself filed a lawsuit against the city earlier in the year, its attorneys on Thursday expressed disappointment about the Jisser family'a decision to sue the city. The Residents Association's board of directors has "continued to hope that the matter could be resolved outside litigation and that the owner would fairly consider generous purchase offers from a non-profit mobilehome park management company," according to the Law Foundation's statement.
"The owner's suit seems to put the possibility of resolving this matter out of court disappointingly farther out of reach," the statement read.
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