The wrong way to expand a fire station

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

Eminent domain is the nuclear bomb in the arsenal of local government. It’s the power of government to take away somebody’s house or business.
This power is particularly fearsome when it’s aimed at a home because that’s usually a person’s largest and most valued asset.

After the property has been seized, the government has to pay the owner an amount deemed fair as determined through a government process. The owner doesn’t get to argue about whether the government should grab the property, only about how much money it’s worth. Not surprisingly, property owners often complain that the process is rigged against them.

Eminent domain is allowed under the constitution. But it’s something that should only be used rarely and with much public discussion and deliberation.

Preferably, a government agency should try to buy the property in an arms-length transaction first. And, if that fails, and the property is absolutely necessary and there’s no good alternative, then and only then should the government exercise eminent domain.

None of that happened when the Menlo Park Fire Protection District went to work on plans to expand its Fire Station 77 at 4767 Chilco St. in Menlo Park.

On the surface, it’s hard to argue about the fire board’s motivation to improve this station in the Belle Haven neighborhood. The east side of Menlo Park is growing fast with the expansion of Facebook and David Bohannon’s new hotel and office building. More growth will mean more people, and that will result in more medical emergencies and fires.

A poor way to communicate

But the residents whose homes might be subject to eminent domain learned about it in an unfortunate way — they got a letter in the mail in mid-February. Understandably, they were surprised and shocked. Getting a legal notice in the mail is a cold, heartless way of dealing with something as precious as a family’s home.

One family says they spent $5,000 on lawyers preparing to fight the move.

The issue came to a head on Tuesday night when upset residents packed the fire board’s hearing room. Many of them were in tears, fearing their homes would be taken away.

The board backpedaled and decided to drop plans to take two of the three homes in question.

This controversy didn’t need to happen. These plans should have been discussed thoroughly with residents before there was any discussion about eminent domain. The fire board should have had a community meeting with the neighborhood to explain its reasons for expanding Fire Station 77.
Alternatives should have been studied and discussed.

I think a lot of this could have been avoided if Chief Harold Schapelhouman and one or more of the board members had simply knocked on the doors of the three homes in question and asked for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the fire district’s needs.

A quote in our story on Thursday from Schapelhouman speaks loudly: “I had no idea the notice felt so threatening. We were going through the check list of legal things and I acknowledge we did things wrong.”

Of course this notice was threatening. Sometimes people in government don’t understand how devastating their power can be.

At the meeting, fire officials blamed the hired consultant for the notice. Some of the board members, who I know are philosophically opposed to eminent domain, distanced themselves quickly from the notice.

An unqualified apology

While this was a bad story, it was good to hear board President Peter Carpenter give a full-throated apology. Not in some half hearted way, like when a politician says, “If I offended you, I’m sorry for …” No, Carpenter took full responsibility for the district’s mistake and didn’t blame the consultant. He didn’t dodge or shift the blame.

Now it’s back to the drawing board for Station 77, and I hope this episode will cause the board to start looking at some alternatives for improving service to Menlo Park’s east side.

I’m no expert on fire response logistics, but it seems to me that Station 77 is in a bad location when it comes to reaching most of the east side. It’s stuck on the edge of a residential neighborhood with narrow streets on one side and a curvy country road on the other, removed from where the growth is taking place.

Why not Willow Road?

I’d like to see the board consider buying a location on Willow Road to put it closer to where the big developments are opening up.

I’m not talking about using eminent domain, but hiring a real estate agent to ask property owners if they’d like to sell. Voluntarily sell. At a fair market price.

Facebook, the largest corporate presence in east Menlo Park, is always talking about how it wants to help the community, and has given money for police, education and housing. Maybe the city and fire board can prevail upon Facebook to help find a place for a new fire station? The station will certainly benefit Facebook along with everybody else on the east side.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.