The City of Murrieta's was wrong to declare 3,500 acres of land blighted in order to create a redevelopment project area, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled. In a lawsuit brought by the Riverside County government, the Fourth District found that the property is not "predominantly urban" nor is "blighted," both of which are required in order to create a redevelopment area. With the exception of 200 acres of vacant county land that was withdrawn, the area in question "has been depicted as a rural and formerly rural area beginning to be developed in spite of some minor deficiencies in the infrastructure. No problems with crime and no significant other problems have been demonstrated," the court said. The appellate court upheld Riverside County Superior Court Judge Stephen Cunnison's ruling that the property was not blighted. The original proposed redevelopment area included some 3,700 acres, 81% of which Murrieta claimed was "urban", Only agricultural and vacant lands were classified as non-urban. However, Judge Cunnison noted that about 600 acres of the land were defined in the city's general plan as rural-residential (2.5-acre minimum lots) and equestrian-residential (0.5-acre minimum lots). Both categories allow livestock and agriculture. Judge Cunnison concluded that this property should not be viewed as urban -thus decreasing the total percentage of land used for urban purposes to about 66%. Even if the 200 acres of vacant land is eliminated, the urban land total is only about 70% of the entire project area. Cunnison ruled that this does not fit the definition of "a predominantly urbanized area" and the appellate court agreed. In affirming Cunnison's interpretation, the appellate court relied heavily on Honey Springs Homeowners Assn. v. Board of Supervisors, 157 Cal.App.3d 1122 (1984). In Honey Springs, the Court of Appeal recognized that the term urban "has no fixed, objective, and easily ascertainable meaning". However, the case laid out a lengthy list of factors to take into consideration, including existing public facilities, on-sight sewage capacity, proximity of employment centers, the size of signs, and other factors. The Honey Springs court also cautioned that urban may not have the same meaning in the different locations. Without laying down a fixed definition of "urban", the court in the Murrieta case said: "Even if we defer to the definitions employed by the City's land use categories, there is a paucity of evidence in the administrative record to support a determination that the project area is predominantly urbanized." The appellate court also affirmed the trial court's ruling that blighted conditions did not exist in the project area. The city's blight report found that 41 of the existing 1,100 structures were identified as unsafe or unhealthy. A smattering of other deficiencies were also found, such as incompatible, nonstandard, and nonconforming uses. The city report also noted that traffic and flooding problems had been exacerbated by the construction of the junction of Interstate 15 and Interstate 215. "[A]fter sifting through the general commentary that describes much of the redevelopment report, we discover there is little substantive material to be gleaned," the court wrote. "Although the report speaks in the statutory language used to define blight, the report offers little concrete evidence of actual conditions of blight." The court also took the city to task for employing the jargon of redevelopment and blight without identifying anything unusual or unique to the project area. For example, the report talked about "functional obsolescence" of buildings - meaning that older buildings tend to be less valuable. But, the court concluded, "the foregoing does not show the existence of blight in the City of Murrieta. The report makes little attempt to describe specific problems caused by older buildings or estimate the cost of repairing those problems." The court also chastised the city for not quantifying the loss of property value due to blight - but, rather, emphasized low retail sales rates and claimed they were a condition of blight. In addition, "The bald claim of inadequate parking is also not supported." The Case: County of Riverside v. City of Murrieta, No. E020294, 98 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7759 (filed Juily 15, 1998). The Lawyers: For Riverside County: George L. Hampton IV, McDermott Will & Emery, (xxx) xxx-xxxx. For City of Murrieta: John R. Harper, Harper & Burns, (xxx) xxx-xxxx.