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Filipino church wary of reported land seizure reversal

LONG BEACH, Calif. (BP)–Judging by local news reports, the members of Filipino Baptist Fellowship in Long Beach, Calif., have reason to rejoice because the redevelopment board reversed course in condemning their building. But the church’s attorney warned that they’re not “out of the woods yet.”

The Long Beach Press Telegram reported March 28 that the Redevelopment Agency Board voted unanimously the previous night to let the congregation keep its property rather than seize it under eminent domain law.

“The action rescinds a board vote two weeks ago to take the property at 2155 Atlantic Ave. to make way for an affordable housing project,” the newspaper reported. “The board had a closed session meeting for about 30 minutes, then returned for a unanimous public vote to discontinue negotiations with The Filipino Baptist Fellowship to acquire the property.”

John Eastman, the church’s attorney, attended the public meeting and left with a different take.

“The Press Telegram story does not reflect what happened at the hearing — only a spin that the staff tried to put on it,” Eastman, director of The Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, told Baptist Press. “The agenda item was completely void of any substance. I asked during public comment what was going on, and they stared cold-faced at me, recessed and went into executive session. They came back [with] a motion ‘to terminate negotiations with the Filipino Baptist Church.’ The motion was approved unanimously without any comment. They then proceeded to the next item on the agenda.”

Eastman said he watched someone who appeared to be a staffer approach the Press Telegram reporter and explain that the board had voted to revoke the condemnation authority.

“When I pressed her by noting that’s not what they did, she simply pleaded that perhaps they didn’t word it very well,” Eastman said. “Here’s the problem with that: The motion was read from a piece of paper, so [it] was likely prepared by the city’s attorney. I can’t imagine that it wasn’t carefully prepared. The reporter then got the same story from the assistant city attorney at the end of the hearing.”

The Press Telegram reported that Assistant City Attorney Heather Mahmood confirmed that the board’s action does halt the condemnation and the board followed procedure by cutting off negotiations for the property.

“They have terminated the condemnation,” Mahmood told the Press Telegram.

Eastman explained two possible interpretations of what happened at the meeting.

“[First,] they really do intend to revoke condemnation authority but can only do so at a future board hearing, after published notice,” he said. “In the meantime, they can’t say anything to make it look as though the matter has already been decided; hence, the strange silence from board members.

“[Or] we’re being fed a bill of goods, designed to pacify us while the city attorney prepares the condemnation suit — or, make this go away with the condemnation authority still in place, on the chance that the developer decides down the road that he simply must have the church property.”

The latter possibility seems to be more consistent with the city’s actions thus far, Eastman said, but the congregation will have to wait to see how the situation unfolds.

Board members are scheduled to meet again Monday, April 10, but Eastman said the citywide municipal election is the following day and it’s possible the hearing could be cancelled.

Strife over the church building’s future began nearly four years ago when city leaders began negotiating with church members to purchase the property to make way for condominiums, but it escalated earlier in March when the city voted to seize the building under eminent domain.

The path for the case was laid when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last summer in Kelo v. New London, Connecticut that a city’s use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another may qualify as a “public use” protected by the Constitution.

City leaders offered multiple alternative locations for the congregation to meet, but Eastman said none of them were acceptable for obvious reasons — one was a bar, two were gas stations, several did not allow adequate parking and others were not for sale but for lease.

Roem Agustine, the church’s pastor, told Baptist Press the ordeal has unified the congregation and the members are hopeful that God will bring good from the situation.

“We know that the Lord will not leave us, and we just don’t know what it is that the Lord has laid out before us. But it’s there and we know it’s there. We continue with our prayers and our hopes up, trusting Him,” Agustine said.

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  • Erin Roach