Old Law, New Tricks

How Brian J. Bergman and Jason Barbato secured redevelopment land for LA County

Published in 2019 Southern California Rising Stars — June 13, 2019

The blocks at the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues have seen little besides criminal activity and blight since they burned down during the riots of 1992. Finally, in 2015, landowner Eli Sasson held a groundbreaking for a redevelopment project; but after two years and little progress, county board members decided to do something about it.

They called Brian J. Bergman and Jason Barbato.

“It was right after this big trial victory having to do with putting a subway tunnel underneath Japanese Village in downtown Los Angeles,” Bergman says. At the compensation stage of the eminent domain case, their client, LA Metro, offered $5 million while the landowners asked for $50 million. The jury came back with $5.5 million.

“To say our victory in that case maybe led to this one is a fair statement,” Bergman adds.

Bergman and Barbato’s eminent domain plan involved showing that the land was necessary for public use; and their motion hinged on two state laws that had zero precedent.

“One unique aspect was in CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act],” Bergman says. “We used a new exemption under the law that came out of [Assembly Bill 32] to combat climate change. This exemption allows people to more quickly, with less red tape, build transit-oriented developments.”

The other piece came from California’s Community Redevelopment Law, which has allowed agencies to redevelop lands through eminent domain since the 1950s. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, some portions of the law had been amended. “We relied on a lot of those provisions, that hadn’t been removed, to advance the theory that the project is justified,” Barbato says.

Bergman adds: “We took an old law and did something new.”

On Dec. 5, 2017, the county board voted to condemn the property and start the process of acquiring the roughly five acres, setting aside $15.7 million to do so.

In response, Bergman says, “the other side filed a demurrer—we felt it was much more similar to a motion for summary judgment.” Sasson’s attorneys argued violations of CEQA, the Brown Act and the Public Records Act. “It was definitely on the higher end of litigiousness.”

Everything culminated at a single-day hearing in April 2018 in which a single judge would weigh both sides’ arguments and decide the property’s fate. Tensions ran high and the courtroom was packed as the judge affirmed the county’s justification. Because Sasson then withdrew the $15.7 million in funds the county had set aside, “he waived the right to appeal,” Bergman says. “So those issues are done and final.”

That said, Sasson can appeal the compensation, when it’s decided by a jury trial slated for October. Once again, Barbato and Bergman are representing the county.

In the meantime, LA County is hard at work on its plans, which include a transit plaza, a mixed-use complex with retail and affordable housing, and “a first-of-its-kind in California 24-hour public boarding school that synergizes with the foster care system,” Bergman says.

The duo says this condemnation may serve as a test case for others. “The new CEQA exemption for transit-oriented development is going to be very important going forward, especially if California prioritizes the reduction of greenhouse gases, the smart and efficient use of land, and to work, live, shop and eat locally,” Barbato says.

Bergman adds: “I certainly think the fact that a public entity can use eminent domain to accomplish redevelopment will be looked at by other cities.” 

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