When Palo Alto officials indicated on April 14 their plan to approve the closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, they specified that the park would have to be re-appraised to account for the high quality of local schools and the park's safe location.
But with appraiser David Beccaria declaring last week that he will not do the council's bidding, officials are now facing an uncomfortable choice: to either rescind their direction, thus, dealing a potential financial blow to the park's roughly 400 residents, or to further prolong a closure process that has already dragged on for a year and a half and risk a lawsuit from the property owner.
The council will consider these options and possibly others on May 26, when it is set to formally approve the closure application for the city's sole mobile-home park. To do so, it would have to approve a set of findings that were drafted by City Attorney Molly Stump and that lay out the rationale for the council's decision. The findings, which were made public Thursday, effectively affirm Beccaria's position and allow the Jisser family to proceed with the park's closure without expanding the scope of the appraisals.
The adequacy of the Buena Vista appraisals was at the heart of the April 14 hearing, with attorneys for the mobile-home park's residents arguing that the appraisals understate the value of Buena Vista homes and does not consider the value of Palo Alto's vaunted school system. The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which is representing the Buena Vista Residents Association, also commissioned a review of Beccaria's appraisals by a different appraiser, James Brabant, who criticized Beccaria's methodology.
Beccaria defended his appraising methodology in a detailed letter and in his oral testimony at the April 14 hearing. At that time, he said he would consider the council's direction for a revised appraisal and that he would discuss it with his business partners. but on May 5, Beccaria asserted in a letter that his company, Beccaria & Weber, "will not engage in further discussions about appraised methodology of Scope of Work issues.
"None of the criticisms brought against our reports have altered any of our opinions of value, the methodology utilized, or our Scope of Work," the letter reads. "In my judgment further communication to the appraiser in this regard would be considered pressuring the appraiser."
He also noted that if the City Council changes the scope of the appraisals, his letter will "also serve as (a) resignation from the subsequent appraisal assignment."
If the council votes to approve the findings as drafted by Stump, it will effectively concede this point to Beccaria. Though the value of each home would have to be re-appraised to reflect the current market before a resident leaves Buena Vista -- an adjustment that no one disputes -- the scope of these appraisals would not be expanded to include schools and safety. The section in the findings that pertains to updated appraisals specifies that updates would be prepared "according to the methodology utilized in the 2013 reports."
In approving the findings, the council would also affirm that Beccaria's response to Brabant's critique was "persuasive and adequate."
In a memo to the council, Stump notes that the findings omit the direction that the council gave to Beccaria on April 14 about revising the scope of the appraisals. She wrote that staff is now researching other options that the council has in regard to the closure application and that it will report on May 26 whether there are "other alternatives that would address Council's concern to ensure that the updated appraisals are complete and accurate, and in particular that the in-place value of the Buena Vista units reflect all the attributes of the community location, including public schools and safety."
Meanwhile, attorneys for the Buena Vista Residents Association are urging the council to commission new appraisals. It is clear, wrote attorney James Zahradka, that "for the council's directive to be followed, a different appraiser will need to be appointed, and new appraisals will have to be conducted." Zahradka noted that local law requires a "qualified appraiser ... to be chosen by the park owner from a list supplied by the City."
At the May 26 hearing, the council should "direct staff to supply this list and inform the park owner that if he wants to pursue his closure application, he will need to submit a new Relocation Impact Report including information based on the new appraisals," Zahradka wrote.
Zahradka also noted that the process for selecting an appraiser was not followed when Beccaria was initially chosen to work on the Buena Vista closure application. Beccaria's firm was recommended to the city by Prometheus Real Estate Group, which was under contract with the Jisser family to convert the mobile-home park to a luxury-apartment development, but backed away from its plan in June 2014.
As evidence, Zahradka included an October 2012 email sent by Tuttle, a senior development manager at Prometheus, to former city planner Jason Nortz. The email includes statements of qualification for relocation specialist Dave Richman and for Beccaria, both of whom were later hired by the Jissers to work on the Relocation Impact Report for the closure application. Tuttle describes Beccaria as "the appraiser that seems to have the most complex park closure experience in the Bay Area."
If the council adopts on May 26 the findings drafted by Stump, it would conclude the closure process and empower the Jisser family to immediately begin the six-month eviction process for the mobile-home park's residents. If not, the closure process that began in the fall 2012 would see another extension.
That latter decision could also place the city at an increase risk of a lawsuit. At the April 14, the Jissers' attorney, Margaret Nanda, strongly objected to the council's determination to revise the appraisals' scope and asserted her right to challenge the requirement in court. The council's purview, she said, was to review last year's decision by a hearing officer, who affirmed the Relocation Impact Report in the closure application, which residents later appealed. By demanding a different scope, the council is effectively rewriting the law, she argued.
"I do not believe that a review of a hearing officer's decision is an opportunity to rewrite the ordinance. ... We did not agree to an updated appraisal based upon a different scope," Nanda said. "You are exceeding what is provided in the ordinance."
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.