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Old and in the Way

Lee Beall
Robert Scheer

Seeds of Change: Mid County Senior Center President Lee Beall says she has "gone through hell" with her organization's infighting over the proposed land exchange offered by Redtree Properties.

When Redtree Properties decided to develop Capitola's Bay Avenue, the company cut a sweet deal with the only thing standing in its way--the Mid County Senior Center. But not every elder is waltzing in the street, and some dissenters have even been tossed out of the dance

By Kelly Luker

ON THE SURFACE, THE DISPUTES between Redtree Properties and the neighbors of its proposed Bay Avenue shopping center development in Capitola appear to typify the battles common between developers and neighborhoods. Residents argue that the proposed shopping complex next door to Nob Hill grocery will destroy the neighborhood charm, encourage chain megastores like Borders Books, thereby crushing local independent booksellers, and irreparably damage the riparian corridor of nearby Soquel Creek.

The developers counter that this is standard anti-development rhetoric, NIMBY-ism and fearmongering based on misinformation.

But lost in the rhetorical noise of the battle was a simple truth: The only real obstacle to the bulldozer's progress was dispatched with barely a ripple, that being the Mid County Senior Center (MCSC), which sits in the heart of the proposed development.

Last September, by a 3-to-1 margin, members of the senior center voted to accept Redtree's offer of a new building on adjacent land in exchange for the valuable property on which it currently sits.

It seemed like a good deal. The building and cooperatively farmed gardens sit back from Bay Avenue on about two acres, surrounded by Redtree-owned property. In order to make their proposed shopping center fly, Redtree needed the land. In exchange, the company would not only give MCSC a bigger piece of property closer to the creek, its representatives told the seniors, but would, at company cost, build a new senior center, all up to code.

Furthermore, Redtree would not pull down the old building until the new one was complete and would reimburse the senior center for all transaction costs, and the cherished gardens would remain untouched.

More than a few of the senior center's members are now recalling the old adage, "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is." Some elders have questioned the wisdom of allowing Redtree Properties to foot the bill for the attorney hired to protect the center's own interest in this transaction, the appraiser hired to appraise the value of both lands and the architect hired to design the new building. They also say that, although the new property appears larger, much of it is unusable, lost beneath a thruway for the shopping center or down the side of the creek.

And, most of all, dissident seniors wonder why their questions, doubts and dissenting opinions have been systematically excluded by MCSC's president and board of directors.

Exposure and Exclusion

AN IMPECCABLY DRESSED woman, Alice Crawford speaks deliberately, ticking off pertinent points on her well-manicured fingers. Crawford is meeting at a Capitola home with Joanne Garrison, Kate Arrieta and Carl Holmstrom, part of 100 seniors calling themselves the Concerned Members of MCSC. Crawford, who was first vice president of the senior center in 1995, says she had concerns about Redtree's proposal when it was first brought to the MCSC board that January. Not only did the land swap seem a bit uneven to Crawford, but she also noticed that the new Senior Center would be built about 25 feet from the sanitation plant.

But, she asserts, "Anyone who was against it was systematically excluded." Crawford claims she was not told of special meetings regarding this issue, nor invited to key board meetings.

After the members voted last May to accept Redtree's proposal (in concept only), Crawford and a few other members took their concerns to the bi-weekly Mid County Post newspaper. After an article outlining their fears was published, MCSC President Lee Beall demanded that Crawford resign. Crawford refused.

Arrieta, a former MCSC member whose home is directly behind Nob Hill, also was disturbed about the proposed development. Arrieta has had to deal with odors coming from the sanitation plant. "A big part of MCSC's revenue comes from weddings and receptions," she notes. "Who's going to want to get married there when they find out about the sewage smell?" Arrieta says that when she began asking too many questions, her membership was rescinded by Beall on the grounds that she was not 50 years old--minimum age for membership (Arrieta is 48).

Mid County Seniors
Robert Scheer

Elder Cares: Joanne Garrison (left), Carl Holmstrom and Kate Arrieta, part of Concerned Members of Mid County Senior Center, have some serious doubts about Redtree Properties' land swap with their Capitola-based organization.

Dissent and Access

WHAT CRAWFORD, Arrieta and their supporters wanted, they say, was simply equal access to the rest of the active members of MCSC, who number close to 600, in order to voice their concerns. Instead, they were refused access to the community bulletin board, and they were not permitted to include any dissenting opinions in the monthly newsletter that is mailed to all members. They eventually sought legal help in order to force Beall and the board of directors to release the mailing list so the Concerned Members could convey their concerns about Redtree's proposal to the general membership.

The MCSC newsletters from 1995 and early 1996 read like a public relations blitz for the Redtree proposal. The April 1995 issue chirps, "Things are alive with the prospect of a new center down the road. ... The Board asks that you give this thought with a positive attitude. We need the change." Member Alice Kelch writes in "A Letter to My Fellow MCSC Members" about her husband overhearing a group of members discussing the pros and cons. "Most of this conversation was held by members who were uninformed," she chides, and proceeds to lay out the facts. Although the Concerned Members allegedly represent about one-sixth of the total active membership, nary a whisper of doubt can be found in the newsletters about Redtree's plans. And, when the mail-in ballot went out to MCSC members in August of 1995 to accept Redtree's final plans, the ballot was accompanied by a proposal--written by Redtree, confirms Beall.

"Redtree took advantage of the board of directors," says Concerned Member Ted Simus. "Most of them are over 80, and Redtree took advantage of their senility. Redtree didn't have to do that."

Games and Assets

BY MOST ACCOUNTS, Redtree Properties has earned a reputation for fairness and integrity in this community. Even those who have sat across the table from the company speak well of it. Attorney Lloyd Williams, who has represented several clients in negotiations with Redtree, says, "I've dealt with many large developers, and I've found Redtree reasonable--more reasonable than most."

It is not surprising, then, that John Tremoulis is clearly pained by these charges leveled by the Concerned Members. Tremoulis is Redtree's project manager for the Bay Avenue development, and it is he who laboriously engineered the trade agreement for MCSC. "We thought we were doing something that was an asset to the community, rebuilding the senior center," he explains.

It is natural that Redtree is paying for MCSC's attorney, appraiser and architect, Tremoulis says, since part of the deal is to save the center from spending any of its own money. That was never any secret. And besides, he adds, "I had nothing to do with who they chose."

Yet the proposal from Redtree to MCSC dated June 28, 1995, states that the appraiser is "to be selected by Redtree and approved by MCSC." That written directive has only further fed Concerned Members' suspicions. However, according to another appraiser, Bruce McGuire, the arrangement is not unusual and is often found in divorce cases.

And Attorney Dennis Book explains that although Redtree Properties reimburses MCSC, "I'm billing and being paid by the Senior Center. Redtree is not the appraiser's client, just like they aren't my client." This practice is also common in business negotiations. As Williams says, "The name of the game [in negotiations] is to get others to pay your expenses."

Rumors and Rebuttals

AS SHE GREETS FRIENDS and acquaintances walking through the spacious building off Bay Avenue, MCSC president Lee Beall murmurs, "This center's had a lot of controversy." The Senior Center is a beehive of activity this morning--one group is out practicing tai chi in the parking lot, while another is being led through a physical fitness class on the dance floor.

A folding table in the foyer is piled high with fresh flowers and vegetables for sale, bounty from the vibrant garden outside that finds another half-dozen members toiling away, pruning and planting, watering and weeding. This collection of co-op garden spaces that members can lease for $20 a year is the crown jewel of MCSC, and there seemed to be unanimous agreement that not one gladiola be disturbed in Redtree's proposed exchange.

Taking a seat at the weathered picnic table inside the garden, Beall admits that presiding in the eye of the storm has cost her dearly. "I've gone through hell," Beall says, referring to the lost friendships, accusations and political infighting that have scarred the senior center and her life these last two years.

She doesn't mince words and echoes Tremoulis' sentiments: "Look, nobody's trying to hide anything. I would never have agreed if it wasn't up front." And, she says, "We turned [Redtree's proposal] down three times before we accepted it."

Yes, she's heard all the rumors--the ballot box was stuffed, bylaws were broken, there is some conspiracy at work. "Ridiculous," she snorts. It's true she demanded that Crawford resign because she went to the papers: "There's some people who enjoy being negative," she responds. And yes, she rescinded Arrieta's membership, but only because Arrieta wasn't the minimum age.

But for all of Beall's straight shooting, there seems to be a dangerous lack of facts. Asked if MCSC ever entertained an offer of selling the property outright, Beall explains that is out of the question, since "if it's sold, it has to be sold to another nonprofit organization."

Well, no it doesn't, says MCSC's attorney Book. As a nonprofit, Book explains, the gains from the sale of the property--which can be to anyone--merely must be reinvested back into MCSC, most likely in another location. Also, Beall is not sure who owns the property beneath the easement, which is arguably the most valuable piece in the whole transaction.

But there are two things Beall is crystal-clear about. First, people should wake up and see Redtree's offer for what it is. "Redtree has never demanded anything," she says. "All they want to do is build a shopping center, and we get a million-dollar building."

Second, she thinks she knows the source for the disgruntled detractors' discontent. "People don't want change," surmises Beall. "But change is coming, whether they want it or not."

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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