Liberty sees Claremont’s eminent-domain loss as sign of things to come in Apple Valley (November 16, 2016)

APPLE VALLEY — A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has tentatively ruled against Claremont in that city’s eminent domain case, a decision Liberty Utilities officials are calling a clear and decisive win for private water providers.

After a trial that lasted more than six weeks, Judge Richard Fruin found it was in the public’s best interest for Golden State Water Company to remain the utility provider, stating municipal ownership was not a more necessary public use for numerous reasons that included the city’s inability to establish that it could better provide safe and reliable water.

Both Claremont and Golden State have 15 days to submit comment before the decision is finalized, court documents show. City Manager Tony Ramos said in a statement that he will forward a recommendation to the City Council to begin the appeal process should that final decision go against the municipality.

The Nov. 10 decision came just two days after voters in Apple Valley passed Measure V and, as a result, earned a future vote before the town’s issuance of bond debt to pay for Liberty’s water system. Greg Sorensen, president of Liberty Utilities California, referenced that vote in a statement wherein he also called both Claremont and Apple Valley’s eminent domain lawsuits frivolous.

The indisputable ruling, Sorensen said, combined with the overwhelming passage of the citizen-initiative Measure V, which earned 67 percent of the vote, is a clear signal that the Town of Apple Valley should carefully consider the consequences of continuing to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to pay lawyers for a lawsuit that cannot be won.

The town has spent $1.5 million on acquisition since 2011 and plans to spend at least $3.5 million. As of June, Claremont has spent $3.7 million and, according to an Inland Valley Daily Bulletin report, the Council there agreed to set aside another $1 million from the general fund the same day the trial started.

Both Claremont and Apple Valley are represented by attorneys with Best Best & Krieger LLP, and attorney George Soneff — who represents Golden State and Liberty — said town officials should realize that Apple Valley residents are facing the same financial disaster if the Town’s lawyers continue with the attempt to seize the local well-run water system.

The law requires that a city which fails in an eminent domain takeover attempt must pay all of the litigation expenses incurred by the property owner, Soneff said. Therefore, the City of Claremont will now owe Golden State Water Company millions of dollars in legal fees, on top of the millions the city has already paid its own lawyers. And, Claremont residents will have nothing to show for these huge expenses.

Meanwhile, Town Manager Frank Robinson told the Daily Press every case is different and that the town’s stands on its own merit.

There are a number of differences between what Claremont is attempting to do, and our situation in Apple Valley – such as who would actually run the water system, Robinson said. From the beginning, we have maintained that the Town will operate the system. Claremont intended to turn that over to a neighboring city (La Verne). There also are differences between the private operators in our two communities.

With that said, Robinson added that Apple Valley’s eminent domain case shares significant similarities with a case in Missoula, Montana. In August, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in favor of that city’s eminent domain purchase. Robinson noted that both Apple Valley’s and Missoula’s cases are against the same water provider and (for) systems of similar size and scope.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Daily Press

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