Another element of intrigue involves the unknown identity of the individuals who have an ownership in the property. Until a year ago, according to county records, Copley Newspapers, publisher of the Union-Tribune, which has used its editorial pages to attack Zimmerman, owned the 805/52 land outright. On March 16, 1999, the newspaper company transferred the property to West RNLN, a so-called "limited liability company." According to county records, a company called Western Devcon is the "managing member" of West RNLN. Michael Ibe is listed as president of Western Devcon.
Also recorded on March 16, 1999, was a $13 million trust deed against the property in favor of another limited-liability company called "RNLN 805/52." According to that firm's articles of organization, Ronald Neeley, a wealthy Del Mar real estate investor, is listed as the company's "agent for service."
In July 1998, Copley sold a 22.74 -acre parcel adjacent to the 805/52 site to the City of San Diego for $16 million. The land will be used for water-utility operations. And Sentre Partners, whose president Stephen Williams contributed $1000 to a hit piece against Zimmerman, has maintained a keen interest in the area. In a letter on Sentre letterhead dated May 14, 1999, to Larry Gardner of the city water department, executive J. Cole Francis attempted to get the city to purchase yet another parcel.
"As you are aware, we own a five-acre land parcel across the street from your site and Mike Ibe is the 25-acre property owner adjacent to your site," Francis wrote. "Mr. Ibe is pursuing a rezoning of his land to residential. Because our property is zoned for an office park development, we have concerns that this rezoning may adversely impact the value of our five-acre parcel."
Dawe, attorney for West RNLN, refused to identify the principals in the venture, though he said Copley retained no interest. Neeley and his wife Lucille, widely known in Del Mar and La Jolla social circles for hosting lavish parties on their sprawling 14-acre estate, have given a total of $1000 to Zimmerman's opponent Dubick, according to campaign-disclosure statements. A telephone call placed to Neeley at his RNLN offices in Mission Valley was referred to Dawe, who said he knew nothing of Neeley's campaign contributions to Dubick.
"It doesn't seem clear who the true owners of this land are," Zimmerman says. "We need full disclosure to the board and to the public of property ownership when the school district is involved in land transactions."
The road to the land controversy began about two years ago, when the school district was looking for a place to build its so-called Food Services Center, a huge central kitchen to prepare and distribute food to the district's cafeterias. Under the plan, 22 "cluster" kitchens at individual schools are to be closed. So-called "cook/chill" meals would be prepared and shipped from the Food Services Center at 40 degrees for later reheating. Eight acres was required to house the 100,000-square-foot building and support facilities, according to district plans.
In a memo to the school board dated December 1, 1998, school-district staffer Pat Zoller outlined three potential sites for the food-service center, including the then-Copley Newspapers-owned parcel in the northwest corner of Kearny Mesa, overlooking the I-805 and Highway 52 freeway interchange. The other two candidates were a location at the old General Dynamics Kearny Mesa site (in an office park now called San Diego Spectrum), and a site, called the Shawline/McGrath property, that consisted of 8.3 acres on Shawline Street at Ruffner Road. San Diego Spectrum had agreed to a negotiated sale, but both the Shawline owners and the Copley Newspapers, which then owned the Copley Drive property, refused to sell and would have to be taken by condemnation action. In Copley's case, according to the scenario then in place, only 8 acres of the 25-acre Copley parcel would be condemned.
Zoller and other staffers recommended that the Shawline site be chosen over Copley and Spectrum properties, based in large part on the cost of acquisition, according to her memo. "The estimate of 'worst-case' condemnation cost relative to the Shawline property is estimated at $800,000. The cost differential of the three sites, considering the estimated condemnation cost, still supports the Shawline/McGrath property as the most economical and best choice for the Food Services Center."
Things seemed so sure for the Shawline site that a memo was drafted on September 23, 1998, for consideration at an October 1998 school-board meeting to prepare the necessary environmental documents to purchase the Shawline site. But no action was taken then. Later, in a memo dated May 27, 1999, the staff would report that "extraordinary condemnation cost" of the Shawline site had gone up to $1.2 million and that the site had received city permits for another building.
In the meanwhile, Copley Newspapers transferred its 25-acre parcel, on March 16, 1999, to West RNLN for $12,994,000. And when, on July 2, 1999, school-district staffers wrote a letter to the new owners of the Copley property about the school district's idea to purchase an eight-acre portion of it for the district's Food Services Center, they got a chilly reception.
In a letter dated July 28, 1999, from Seltzer, Caplan's James Dawe to the school-district chief administrative officer Henry E. Hurley, Dawe recalled that he, Hurley, and Michael Ibe, the West RNLN principal, met "two or three months ago to discuss the school district's possible interest in the acquisition of approximately eight to nine acres of the property on Copley Place [sic] for development as a food distribution center." After that meeting, Dawe wrote, "Mr. Ibe requested his architect [to] analyze the potential impacts of the food distribution center on the balance of the property. Based upon such analysis, the owner has concluded that the District's proposed building would be incompatible with the development of the balance of the property."
Though the West RNLN group professed no interest in selling their land, as the spring of 1999 progressed, the district seemed to become more committed to purchasing the entire 20 acres of the West RNLN property rather than just the 8 acres said to be needed for the Food Services Center. Why a shift from 8 acres to the full 20 acres? Zimmerman points to internal school-district memos to support her assertion that Bersin's real estate development committee, run by his father-in-law, may have been responsible for the change.