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Jennifer Kilpatrick: Make the Sterling-Gateway site work for Castaic

Posted: July 18, 2009 9:48 p.m.
Updated: July 19, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Sitting by the beautiful waters of the Colorado River, I should be serene. But I was foolish enough to read the July 16 edition of The Signal, containing Hart district Superintendent Jaime Castellanos’ disingenuous statement to the Castaic community: “I’ve gone as far as I can go,” a frustrated Castellanos told The Signal in an interview. “Now I need the support of the (Castaic Area) Town Council and the community to make this happen.”

Frankly, I haven’t heard such unmitigated baloney since ... the last time I dealt with the Hart district. Kudos to Mr. Castellanos. He’s reached a pinnacle never attained by former Superintendent Bob Lee.

At least Mr. Lee never had the nerve to imply the Hart district lacked the legal powers to grab whatever land it wanted for a school site.

So, for the benefit of my friends in Castaic and in other important places in the Santa Clarita Valley, a little primer on buying a high school site, without negotiating with a pack of jackals:

Last go-round, the Hart district had very competent, aggressive and  might I add cleverly devious lawyers, who are very well experienced in representing school districts.

Those lawyers will tell you, publicly or privately, that the Hart district has the power to condemn legal title to land, free and clear of easements, mortgages and other liens.

In fact, when the Hart district was first planning the boundaries of the land for Golden Valley High School, they filed a pre-condemnation lawsuit against the owner of the property north of the school site, just so they could go in and do geologic testing of that land.

They ultimately decided they didn’t need that land, but I was there in the courtroom when Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner/Judge Mitchell told everyone  he would give the Hart district whatever court order it needed to take control of the property.

As a result, the Hart district’s great lawyers know — and they have certainly told the Hart district board members in closed session — that the Hart district has the power to condemn “clear title” to the Sterling-Gateway property.

For those who don’t know how, or have forgotten, here’s how it is done:

Step 1: Get an appraisal of the fair market value of fee title to the property prepared by a licensed appraiser.

Step 2: Get an official check in the amount of the appraised value of the property, and make the check payable to “Clerk of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.”

Step 3: File a condemnation lawsuit, in the Hart district’s name as plaintiff, with the L.A. Superior Court downtown, naming as defendants the Sterling-Gateway property owner, the Valencia Commerce Center “owners’ association,” which enforces the alleged deed restrictions for that property and other “Does” representing easement holders on the property.
(As an interesting note, when the city condemned the land for Golden Valley Road, there were about 30 defendants, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, yet the city attorney didn’t get all scared about fighting 30 defendants.)

Step 4: File a motion for an order of immediate possession with the court clerk and pick a hearing date. While filing the motion, give the clerk the official check in the amount of the appraised value of fee title to the property.

The clerk will cash the check and hold the money in the court’s checking account until later in the case, when it can be released to the parties with interests in the property.

Step 5: Serve the complaint for foreclosure and the motion for order of immediate possession on Sterling-Gateway’s owner and on the Valencia Commerce Center property owners’ association.

Step 6: Show up at L.A. Superior Court downtown on the hearing date with a nice, clean copy of the order of immediate possession.

Let the defendants’ lawyers babble about anything they want.

There is no defense to a motion for an order of immediate possession. The judge will sign the order of immediate possession. His clerk will make photocopies right then and there.

The Hart district’s lawyers will hand a copy of the order to the other lawyers at the hearing, effectively “serving” their clients. At that moment in time the Hart district will actually own the Sterling-Gateway site, free and clear of the deed restriction.

Step 5: On the same day the order of immediate possession is signed and served, the Hart district can send a crew out to put up a fence around the property.

They can send armed guards out to keep irate “neighbors” off the property. They can put up a big sign saying “Future Castaic High School Site.”

Step 6: The Hart district then hires a consultant to “help” it obtain approval of the school site by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

A superficial environmental assessment report is written and delivered to that agency. A few months pass. The consultants make a few calls. A letter is issued telling the Hart district it can build a high school on the site.

If Jaime Castellanos feels challenged in accomplishing that task, the Hart district’s lawyers can help him. Bob Lee sure did it with relative ease for Golden Valley High School.

Step 7: Submit the school site to the California Department of Education. There are just a few rules in the department’s regulations which would preclude the location of a school on the Sterling-Gateway site:

Will the school building be sitting on top of a major earthquake fault? Will the school building be within about 350 feet of a major power line?

Will the school site be within 1,500 feet of a high-pressure natural gas line or oil pipeline?

Will the school site have two roads providing ingress and egress ... never mind; they often waive that one.

Will the school site have its main entrance on a side street, for safety purposes? ... Never mind; they often waive that one.

Is the school site big enough to meet the state’s regulations ... Never mind; they often waive that one.

If the Sterling-Gateway school site couldn’t pass those tests, the Hart district employees were incompetent in considering the school site in the first place.

Step 8: Once the Department of Education approves the school site, it’s on to designing the school, getting approval of the plans and approval by the state architect.

Not a big deal. The Hart district always hires architects who specialize in designing schools, which make the state agencies happy.

So Castellanos says he cannot get the foregoing done. Or he can’t get it done without the Castaic community’s help. Baloney. Bob Lee got Golden Valley High School built with zero support from the Canyon Country community members.

I am told the real issue, with respect to Mr. Castellanos and the Hart district board’s feigned incompetence, is that Newhall Land wants the money for a Castaic high school spent to build a high school in Newhall Ranch instead.

Is Newhall Land going to spend money to defeat the Hart district board members when they run for re-election? Right now, no. Newhall Land is in bankruptcy, and the judge won’t let them do that.

Assuming they “emerge” from bankruptcy fairly soon, Newhall Land has to get a whole lot of further land-use approvals from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.

Newhall Land is not going to want to have busloads of angry parents going down to the county Hall of Administration opposing their project in retribution.

Mike Antonovich may not like “environmentalists,” but he sure will have second thoughts about defying the wishes of a chamber full of angry voters. For heaven’s sake, most of them are Republicans!

Finally, to bat down some other lame excuses being peddled around the community by Hart district employees and Hart board members:

1. The Valencia Commerce Center Owners’ Association is not a debtor in bankruptcy anywhere. It’s not “illegal” to destroy their land-use restriction (if it really exists) by way of a condemnation lawsuit.

Even if they were in bankruptcy, under Section 362(b)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code, it would be next to impossible for a bankruptcy court judge to order the Hart district to honor a mere deed restriction.

2. The land-use restriction in favor of Valencia Commerce Center Owners’ Association may not even exist. The lawyer for the owner of the Sterling-Gateway property told the Hart district, in writing, that his client’s title insurance policy does not show such a deed restriction as an “exception” from the title insurance policy’s coverage.

Title insurance companies are usually very careful about not making mistakes when they issue an insurance policy for a million dollars or so.

3. If the title insurance company was mistaken, so what? An order of immediate possession destroys the deed restriction, and at worst the title company and the members of the Valencia Commerce Center Owners’ Association can fight about the dollar amount of “damages” the association actually suffers as a result of the high school being near them.

And to those owners and their association, good luck to you. Your damages are speculative, if they exist at all. You would have to prove them to a jury. The trial would probably be in downtown L.A., where jury pools generally don’t like rich corporate types from the suburbs. My best estimate of the damages you would recover is the cost of a traffic signal.

4. A school site condemnation of this sort is not hard to do, in terms of legal work. Hart district’s lawyers already have the court pleading forms. They’ve done it many times.

If they say they don’t have the forms, I can get them the forms used by Santa Clarita’s city attorney to condemn the right of way for Golden Valley Road. The Hart district’s lawyers can simply change the names of the parties where necessary, and slap on a different Exhibit “A,” which shows the legal description of the property to be condemned.

That’s what they will do with their own forms, anyway.

If I’ve missed any of the other phony excuses being peddled by the various opponents to a Castaic high school being located at the Sterling-Gateway site, please let me know. I’ll be glad to debunk any further myths.

I am so sick of the years and years of Hart district slighting the students in Castaic, I’ll make this offer: I’ll leave the paradise of the Colorado River banks and come back to Santa Clarita on my broom (which is actually a purple wheelchair) and do whatever legal grunt work the Hart district’s very competent lawyers need to help them condemn this land so the kids can have their high school.

I am willing to bet there are plenty of lawyer/parents in Castaic who would be willing to work on the project too.

We have a great judge in L.A. County named David Yaffe, whom I often quote.

He is one of only two or three judges in the county who handle lawsuits against public agencies like the Hart district.

Judge Yaffe has repeatedly said, in open court, that there’s nothing he can do to protect citizens and taxpayers from the “stubbornness” or “bad decisions” of elected officials or public employees.

Judge Yaffee says voters’ and taxpayers’ remedy is to vote the laggards out of office. So, my friends in Castaic, if we cannot convince Mr. Castellanos and the Hart district board to develop a little chutzpah in the next few weeks and start a condemnation of the Sterling-Gateway high school site, I think it is time to put together recall petitions to remove all five of the Hart district board members from office.

That legal work is also very easy to do. I think the lawyer/parents in Castaic can handle it with great ease.

The actual forms are in the code books in your law library.

Jennifer Kilpatrick is a former Santa Clarita Valley resident and environmental attorney active on the Community Action Group that forced the cleanup of the Whittaker-Bermite property. A friend of both Republicans and Democrats, she is retired and lives in Ft. Mohave, Ariz. Her views represent her own and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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