Up a Creek

Eminent domain looms imminent in Caldwell


The City of Caldwell's leaders have a vision. In the Canyon County seat's near future, they say, an economic explosion will jolt the slumbering downtown core. Shops, condos and rooftop gardens will spring up where now sit old buildings and empty lots. And squarely in the middle of this vision rolls a once-polluted but soon to be pristine stream--Indian Creek--with 50 feet of wetlands and landscaping hugging either side.

The dream of revitalizing Caldwell's urban waterway has earned support from the Governor's office, environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and Idaho Rivers United, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--the last to the tune of $7.5 million in funding. The city and the Caldwell East Urban Redevelopment Agency have also spent nearly $2 million to purchase 10 properties in the creek's path. But some business owners don't want to sell their livelihoods for the city's dreams. Others say they weren't given a choice.

"It was, 'Mr. Wright, sell or we'll start the condemnation process and sue you,'" said Vince Wright, owner since 1996 of Gem State Brewing in downtown Caldwell. Wright told BW he felt pressured and threatened by "the city's posse" to take an offer for his property that was very little over what he had paid a decade earlier.

Put in such a position, Wright hesitated. First, he took the offer, noting on the bill of sale that he signed "under duress and uncomfortable circumstances." Days later, he reneged, and the city agreed to nullify the sale. Soon after, he agreed again. Now his property is pegged to be "green space" along Indian Creek's shore.

So is this a case of seller's remorse, or is it like Kelo vs. City of New London, the controversial Supreme Court decision supporting a cities' right to seize private property by way of eminent domain laws, if they believe private economic development is in the "public interest"? When BW asked three of the City of Caldwell's major economic players, we received very different answers.

"I don't know where Mr. Vince Wright is coming from," said ElJay Waite, who serves as both treasurer and financial director for the City of Caldwell and as chairman of the city's urban renewal agency. "There was no property condemned. It was all purchased through the title company."

Dennis Cannon, the City of Caldwell's redevelopment coordinator, was also familiar with the accusations. "It shouldn't have happened," he said. "We had a realtor who was trying to negotiate with these folks, and we never intended condemnation to be an option." Cannon added that the city "tried to pick a path (for Indian Creek) so that it would do minimum damage to businesses," and when necessary, they were "pretty generous" in their buy-out offers, even offering relocation allowances to businesses.

Then there's Larry Rinkover. He's the "realtor" described by Cannon, but he's also someone Idahoans never want to see knocking on their door. As the head of Boise-based Negotiation Services, Rinkover has worked for the Ada County Highway District, the Idaho Transportation Department and cities like Twin Falls and McCall. He played a crucial role in creating Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard, Federal Way in Boise and the recent East and West Parkcenter bridges. In each project, he lives up to his business's name in the same way: by obtaining, through purchase or condemnation using eminent domain, all property necessary for a public project.

Of Indian Creek, Rinkover said, "It's an eminent domain project."

"We take the buildings that are above Indian Creek, take them down, build the creek," he explained. "What happens beside the creek is different. That's private property." Rinkover said in his opinion the Indian Creek project isn't like the Supreme Court case, because the creek was the sole focus of Caldwell's property grab.

Rinkover said he never uses eminent domain as a "threat." However, he admitted his job can mean "forcing--literally forcing--people to sell their property for the public interest." As for those who are being forced out, "They can contact an attorney or do whatever they need to do to be comfortable with the process."

When told of Rinkover's stance, Cannon stuck by his previous statement, saying, "The city never used eminent domain and never intended to." If Rinkover seems more comfortable than Cannon in acknowledging creek restoration as a public work, that may be because the waterway is planned to serve a broader function than the bridges or roads that typically utilize condemnation. Indian Creek is the centerpiece of an economic redevelopment scheme meant to lure certain types of consumers, investors and businesses Cannon says aren't currently in downtown Caldwell.

"It will be a work, play and shop kind of atmosphere," Cannon said. "A boutique kind of thing. Bakeries, restaurants, good shops. Clothing shops. We're looking as we do this development plan to put businesses together and work with investors to package something we really think is going to work--and also attract some of the college clientele into downtown." In time, Cannon said, the city wants to add a parking garage, movie multiplex and a convention center as big as the Boise Centre on the Grove.

This economic aspect of the project causes some involved to cry foul. "It's very much like the Kelo case," said Don Copple, a Boise lawyer representing one downtown Caldwell business. "They go out and condemn, and they use right-of-way agents like Larry Rinkover."

But even though Rinkover's words (and his very presence) suggest Caldwell was prepared to use eminent domain, the city now appears unwilling to pull the trigger. For instance, Cannon told BW the city has decided to move the creek--and its accompanying 100 feet of green space--a block north of its initial path. The reason: Copple's client Pat Oller, who has operated Campbell Auto Body on that spot since the early 1960s, refused to sell for the amount offered by the city.

"I'm all for progress," Oller told BW. "But I need to relocate. The city's offer was not enough to relocate." As a result, she will soon own the Treasure Valley's premiere waterfront body shop.

Even stranger is the way the city dealt--or didn't deal--with Keystone Pizza, the last remaining franchise of what was once a popular Treasure Valley chain. Currently, Indian Creek runs beneath the restaurant, and on either side the city has decorated the banks with large rocks and metal sculptures. The restaurant looks patently out of place, and will continue to for one simple reason:

"They have no money," said Roelof Speelman, Keystone's owner. "They say it will be another two years before they can even come talk to me. All they're doing is making my backyard pretty. The prettier they make it, the more expensive my property gets. This is a win-win situation no matter how you look at it."

Cannon said the city has "long-range plans" to tear down the pizza joint, opening up another section of Indian Creek and bringing downtown Caldwell closer to the idyllic images on the Corps of Engineers' Web site. He admitted their current budget will not allow any more expensive acquisitions. He also said the city might have similarly yielded to Wright, had he not agreed to sell.

That's bad news for Wright, who sold the microbrewery he thinks could have been an "anchor of the new downtown" because he thought condemnation was looming. Time will tell whether the Caldwell of developers' dreams will be worth the sacrifice of such buildings, but Oller says she's not so sure.

"We're a farm community," she says. "I don't think the people in the outlying areas are viewing this as Park Avenue."