http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/8236731.htm City declares desert land 'urbanized,' 'blighted' to take it over TIM MOLLOY Associated Press CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. - When Hyundai needed land for a new auto testing track, officials in this remote, high-desert town were eager to oblige. They hoped the $50 million track would bring a wealth of property taxes for the struggling town, where the unemployment rate is twice the state average. Under a state law that allows governments to seize land designated as "urbanized and blighted," the city's redevelopment agency went to court and won permission to take more than 700 acres from private landowners, paying them what many in the area considered a fair amount. On the surface, the arrangement looked like a reasonable example of the government buying privately owned land for the public good. But four holdout property owners said if Hyundai wants the land it must be worth much more than what the city offered. They have sued over the city's argument for condemning their land, saying it is anything but "urbanized." The region lies 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, set amid a lonely expanse of Mojave Desert dotted with Joshua trees and scrub brush. "You know how the desert looks when it's pristine and hardly anybody's out there and there's no tracks or anything?" said Barry Redfearne, who owns 20 acres. "That's how it looks. And it's been like that for hundreds of years." Redfearne and three other landowners have sued to stop the city from taking their properties, which total 60 acres, but a federal judge has rejected the landowners' request for an injunction to stop Hyundai from building on their land. Another landowner who is part of the lawsuit, Jim Swain, said he's sure Hyundai will eventually get the 10 acres owned by him and his sister. "I think they've already won," said Swain, a retired Disney film editor living in Burbank. "We know that they're going to get our property. It's just whether we're going to get any money for it." Those who own the rest of the 700 acres the city condemned have opted not to sue, with some negotiating purchase prices. The project's backers say the land meets the state's definition of "urbanized and blighted," even if it doesn't look that way to the naked eye. Todd Amspoker, an attorney for the city, said California Health and Safety Codes grant government agencies permission under eminent domain to take land made of "subdivided lots of irregular form and shape and inadequate size for proper usefulness and development that are in multiple ownership." Critics say the legal language was intended to describe slums and abandoned buildings, not open space. "The whole redevelopment scam makes a mockery of the English language," said Chris Norby of Orange County, a critic of such redevelopment actions and statewide director of Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform. "Blight would be slums that breed crime and juvenile delinquency. Blight would be overcrowded apartments and leaky plumbing. Blight would be places like the South Bronx or areas of Detroit. Blight would not be the Mojave Desert in California." Construction is under way at the track, although environmentalists also hope to halt it. They filed a lawsuit in federal court saying the project could destroy land that is home to the threatened Mojave ground squirrel and desert tortoise. Hyundai said it is protecting and relocating the species and hired Bruce Babbitt, President Clinton's former secretary of the Interior Department, to win permits for the project. For California City, the Hyundai track looks like the path to better days. Hundreds of speculators bought land in the area in the 1960s, drawn by a developer's false promise of an impending industrial boom. Today, the town is California's third-largest in size but one of the smallest in population. About 2,600 of the town's 12,000 residents are federal prisoners. The unemployment rate is 11.4 percent, and four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes sell for $150,000 - less than half the state's median housing price. California City's mayor, Larry Adams, said the landowners are blocking the town's progress. He said the track would create 100 new jobs and bring in $500,000 a year in property taxes for education, utilities, police and firefighters. He has little sympathy for the holdout landowners, none of whom live in the city. "I think it's a matter of one or two (who) probably are true believers in the freedom of mankind, blah blah blah, and they don't like eminent domain," he said. "Some have a sentimental attachment to the land they inherited. And some of them are just greedy." Hyundai spokesman Chris Hosford referred questions about the transactions to city officials. The company approached the city in late 2001, saying it wanted to build a 4,500-acre proving ground within a two- or three-hour drive of its design center in Irvine. California City annexed 29 square miles of unincorporated Kern County land suitable for the track and relinquished another 29 square miles to the county. Hyundai then bought almost 3,000 acres from Catellus, a real estate company that sells former railroad property. The remaining acres Hyundai wanted were divided into lots owned by 246 owners. An appraiser hired by the city's redevelopment agency estimated the land's value at about $1,000 an acre. Many of the landowners sold to the agency, some after negotiating the price up to $1,400 an acre, Amspoker said. The agency went to state court, asking to take the remaining land under eminent domain, arguing it fit the definition of "urbanized and blighted." The judge awarded possession to the agency, which then gave it to Hyundai. The agency will have to pay the fair market value for the land, which will be decided by a jury, Amspoker said. The automaker is reimbursing the agency for its costs. Some locals say the landowners should take what the agency's offering. California City real estate agent Katy Gagnon said she recently sold 102 acres in a better location for $1,000 an acre. The four holdout landowners say Hyundai should have approached them directly. Redfearne said if Hyundai plans a $50 million project, his land should be worth at least $435,000 to the company - not the $18,000 he said the city has offered. "It's a matter of principle," said Redfearne, a retired business owner who lives in Prescott, Ariz. "I don't need the money. But the problem is, I don't like to have anything stolen from me."