Calling it a "baseless suit," the City of Palo Alto is asking a federal court to reject a court challenge that was leveled against the city in November by the owners of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, the Jisser family.
The city's motion to dismiss, which will be heard in a U.S. District Court on May 26, alleges that the Jissers violated the statute of limitations and failed to seek remedies at local and state levels, as the law requires, before filing their lawsuit in a federal court. The Jissers, who have been trying to close the Palo Alto mobile home park since 2012, allege in their suit that the city acted illegally in requiring them to provide relocation assistance to the roughly 400 residents who would be displaced if Buena Vista were to close.
The relocation benefits, which the Jisser family estimates total about $8 million, are a requirement under an ordinance that Palo Alto approved in 2001 to govern closure of mobile-home parks. These benefits include the cost of each mobile home, moving costs and rent subsidies for a year (the difference between their Buena Vista rents and their new rents). Ironically, most of these benefits were proposed by the Jissers themselves as part of a Relocation Impact Report the family filed during the closure-application process.
The family first applied for the park's closure in November 2012 and only received the city's approval last spring, after a string of emotional public hearings and years of revisions to the Relocation Impact Report, which was finally approved last spring after four prior drafts were rejected.
Now, the Jissers are hoping that the federal court will toss out the requirement, which their attorney equated to extortion. The lawsuit calls the requirement "oppressive and unreasonable."
"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 from the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Jisser family, states.
The city's motion to dismiss rejects this characterization and calls the claims in the Jissers' lawsuit "untimely and meritless," with fatal flaws that are "multiple and beyond cure." The city's claim, filed by the Oakland-based firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP, likens the challenge with other prior efforts by property owners to use the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause "as a sword to attack cities' lawful exercise of their police powers to protect vulnerable residents."
"Courts have consistently rejected these attempts to undermine the laws upon which both mobile-home park owners and their tenants have reasonable investment-backed expectations," the city's motion states.
The city's attorneys are arguing that because the Jissers are effectively challenging the law itself, rather than the way in which the city applied the law, the statute of limitation should apply to the time when the law was enacted: 2001. Because the statute for limitations for challenging laws that passed before 2003 is one year, the Jissers' challenge should be tossed, the city argues.
Furthermore, the city's motion faults the Jissers for filing a federal lawsuit without first exhausting their options on the local and state levels. The family did not dispute the council's approval in May of the relocation benefits. Rather, the family submitted a letter in August stating that it "now formally accepts the city's decision regarding the park closure."
The plaintiff, the City notes, did not appeal the city's decision either on an administrative level or in a state court. In fact, the Jisser family in April defended a hearing officer's decision against the residents' appeal. And unlike the residents, who filed their own suit in a state court in August, the park owners went straight to the federal level.
"Thus, the City never had an opportunity to determine whether a lesser amount of relocation assistance would preserve for Plaintiffs reasonable economic use of their property, avoiding (or limiting) a potential takings," the city's motion states.
The lawsuit is one of two that the city is facing over Buena Vista. Attorneys for the Buena Vista Residents Association claimed in the August lawsuit that the relocation package approved by the council is "grossly inadequate" and 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," the residents' lawsuit states. "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."
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.