The Ride of Their Lives

Residents say, No way to city officials who want to bulldoze their neighborhood to build roller coasters

Then, in February 1998, the city declared blighted the land beneath Belisles and an adjacent senior citizens' mobile home park. City officials offered the land free of charge to several hotel corporations—the same corporations that have largely funded Broadwater's political career in recent years.

Leo Lambert takes special offense at the notion that his community is blighted.

"I grew up on a farm," he says, "so I know what blight is. Blight is a mold or a fungus on a plant. You treated that area; you didn't throw out the entire crop. Blight is not living behind a brick wall or having chipped paint."

Huntington Beach-based realtor Dick Lobin, who has sold homes in Garden Grove for 25 years, agrees. "I don't think those homes are particularly blighted," he said, adding that similar two-bedroom houses nearby are currently selling for $265,000. "In the past number of years, conditions have improved," he added. "The number of rentals has gone down, and more owners want to take care of their homes."

In fact, Verla Lambert estimates that all but six houses in the entire tract have been remodeled at least once, including her own. "In 1992, our particular home got a beautification award," she said. "Back in 1991, the city came through and offered paint jobs for the homes for free. That's what I thought this letter was about."

"This letter" was one that came to every one of the Lamberts' neighbors. Verla ignored hers until Manny Ballesteros, her new next-door neighbor, handed her a copy one morning in January. The letter was a notice that the city planned to add the neighborhood to its redevelopment plan.

Ballesteros, who had just moved to Garden Grove from Irvine in December, began organizing his neighbors to stop the city. On May 29, city officials met with those residents at the Lamberts' house. The news was bleak: while nobody would lose their home for at least five years, the city reserved the right to seize the land for the next 30 years.

At the meeting, City Manager George Tindall told residents that Garden Grove's economic future depended on its ability to capture Disneyland-related tourism along Harbor Boulevard. But he also tried to assuage their fears. "Just because we put your properties in the redevelopment plan doesn't mean anything's going to happen," he said. "There's got to be a developer who has to put the money up; there's got to be a market that says it's feasible. . . . But if we don't have [your properties] in the redevelopment zone, then we can't go out and work with those people."

Asked why the city's redevelopment plan stated that the Lamberts house and the rest of their neighborhood is "blighted," Tindall answered with remarkable alacrity. "That's a terrible word," he said. "I don't like blight; you don't like blight. But that's the thing in state law we have to say. Your house is not blighted," he continued, pointing at the Lamberts' home. "That's one of the prettiest houses in the whole neighborhood right next door. It's a gorgeous home."

Kathy Evans, whose mother has lived near the Lamberts for 45 years, was also at the May 29 meeting.

"We don't feel the city has the right to take our homes to build more hotels and to capitalize on our neighborhood to create a third theme park for Anaheim," she said. Evans is the press spokesperson for the Coalition of Concerned Garden Grove Citizens; Verla Lambert is the president.

"Our dirt is older than the city of Garden Grove," Verla said, referring to the fact that she and her husband bought their house a year before the neighborhood was officially added to the city in 1957.

"This is the American Dream. I have a nice house, two baths, two small rooms, and I still have a yard to mow," she said. "They can build their roller coaster right over my head, but I'm not leaving."

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