Gov. Jerry Brown had good reason to demolish redevelopment in 2012. The system, set up to help cities and counties gather financial resources to breathe life into blighted areas, had long since seen its credibility crushed under the weight of abuse. Over time, almost anything — including areas that didn't have a sports professional sports complex and, to the consideration of some, needed one — fell under the elastic definition of "blight."
But the governor's plan for terminating agencies and using the funds to plug the gap in the state's finances was flawed. It pulled the rug out from under just about all projects, good or bad, including a couple of important ones here in Sonoma County.
But that may be about to change thanks to a hopeful court decision on Friday.
The problems is the governor left it to state finance officials to determine which of the 400 or so redevelopment projects throughout the state could not be ended because they were bound by "enforceable obligations" — i.e., committed contracts. State officials were under order to take the money back from all the others and redistribute it to other sources, primarily schools and counties.
At the time, the state was facing a shortfall of around $16 million and schools needed the funding. Finance officials drew a hard line in their definition of "enforceable obligations," leaving some redevelopment agencies — as well as builders, property owners and businesses — high and dry in their commitments to seeing projects through.
A Sacramento Superior Court judge essentially reached that same conclusion on Friday, noting that the state Department of Finance "abused its discretion" when it determined that payments involved in two significant Sonoma County redevelopment projects did not fit the definition of enforceable obligations.
It's a significant, albeit tentative, victory for the county.
One of the projects involves the completion of street, sidewalk and lighting upgrades to that area of Highway 12 in an area north of Sonoma known as the Springs. Much work has already been done to revitalize that strip of unincorporated Sonoma County.
The other project called for transforming a former shopping center in the unincorporated Roseland area into a commercial and residential complex with a community plaza.
It's certain that this will not be the final stop for this case. The ultimate determination certainly will come from a higher court. Similar cases are pending throughout the sate.
The county has already pledged to see these projects through, using funds it will be receiving from the state as part of the redistribution of redevelopment tax dollars. But it's clear the projects could take a lot longer to complete if the county loses this case, while siphoning away money that could be used for other purposes.
County officials make a good case for why these are binding contracts. But more than that, there's an important argument to be made that the benefits of these projects — in terms of environmental cleanup, economic revitalization and elevated property values — outweigh the incremental benefits of redistributing the money elsewhere.
These are projects that meet the benchmark definitions of both "blight" and "enforceable obligation" as well as the public definition of "critical."