The Modesto Bee
April 2, 2003

RIPON – The city has won a two-year legal battle against a man who claimed it unfairly kept down the price of his property in order to take it more cheaply for the Jack Tone Road Highway 99 interchange.

The Third District Court of Appeals this week reversed a jury ruling that gave $356,000 to Marshall and Billie Sweetin for the three-fifths-of-an-acre parcel across the street from where the Ripon water tower now stands.

In order to build the interchange, the city exercised its right of eminent domain and negotiated the purchase of about a dozen small properties. The city offered the Sweetins $190,000, based on the zoning for light industrial use.

The Sweetins refused the offer and took the city to court to get more money for the parcel they bought in 1989. They ran an automotive repair shop and lived in a 1,000-square-foot house on the property.

According to the judgment, the Sweetins’ lawyer presented testimony from an appraiser who said the property could have been zoned for highway commercial use if not for the interchange project, and therefore, it was worth more money.

The city argued that the appraiser “contaminated” the jury since information about what the city did prior to eminent domain proceedings was not admissible in court.The court of appeals agreed, saying, “The erroneous admission of this evidence constitutes a miscarriage of justice.”

Further, the city explained that the property does not have infrastructure for highway commercial uses. There are no water or sewer lines, curbs, gutters or sidewalks, and no proposals to develop them.
“This case signifies that appraisers cannot get in front of a jury and use highly misleading and highly inflammatory testimony to prejudice it,” City Attorney Tom Terpstra said.

Neither the Sweetins nor their lawyer, Joe Fagundes, could be reached for comment. The property is under the off-ramp from southbound Highway 99 to Jack Tone Road. There are no plans to develop it, city officials said.

“We have an obligation to pay fair market value, not give away taxpayer dollars,” Terpstra said. “We’re not a big city, and we don’t have all the money in the world.”