The city of Fresno is asking a judge to let it into the Tower Theatre. Although not said explicitly, a court filing indicates the city may want to take the theater by eminent domain.
Meanwhile, a California appeal court will let a lower court decide a lingering issue in the sale of the Tower District icon.
The theatre’s owner, Laurence Abbate, said that he rejected the city’s request, which was made last week. Abbate said that he had not seen a copy of the court filing when he spoke to GV Wire on Monday.
“It’s in the historic register. And if the church gets it, it’ll stay that way. So I don’t really follow the logic there. Whoever buys it, it will stay that way. It has to stay that way,” Abbate said.
The city filed a “petition for order permitting inspection for appraisal” in Fresno County Superior Court on Friday.
The owners of the Tower Theatre agreed to sell the property, which includes the theater itself and surrounding property that houses restaurants, to Adventure Church in December. One of the theatre tenants, Sequoia Brewing sued, claiming it has the first right not only to buy its building, but the entire property as well.
Protesters against the sale to the church have demonstrated every Sunday since January, when word of the transaction broke. They oppose a church owning the property, partly because of the church’s perceived view on LGBT rights and partly because of the possible effect on surrounding businesses that sell alcohol and potentially cannabis.
Adventure Church recently resumed in-person services at the theater, which it rents. It stopped when the protests heated up.
City Wants to Inspect Tower Theatre
The city filed a petition in Fresno County Superior, asking for entry to the Tower Theatre for an appraisal.
A copy of the petition can be read here.
“I remain committed to ensuring the Tower Theater continues to be preserved as a National Historic icon. … Once the appraisal is complete, it will be presented to the city council to consider options for the historic preservation of the Tower Theater.” — Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria
In its filing, the city says state law allows for cities “to take necessary steps to ensure historical preservation.” The Tower Theatre was placed on the federal “National Register of Historic Places” in 1992.
Without using the words “eminent domain,” the pleading also mentions that the city “may also acquire property for development for recreational purposes and for development of facilities in connection therewith.”
“An appraisal is required to occur first so that the City can further assess the next steps it wishes to take with regards to Tower Theatre as permitted by law,” the petition says.
The city said the theater’s legal representatives “refused to cooperate” with the request for access inside the theater.
“I remain committed to ensuring the Tower Theater continues to be preserved as a National Historic icon,” Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria told GV Wire in an email. “To that goal, the City is taking steps for historic preservation and has commenced an appraisal of the Tower Theatre.
“The City is seeking assistance of the Court through a Petition for Order Permitting Inspection of the Property for Appraisal. Once the appraisal is complete, it will be presented to the city council to consider options for the historic preservation of the Tower Theater.”
Theater Owner Responds
Abbate said he would abide by whatever the court rules. He is still evaluating whether he will challenge the petition’s request.
“If it’s legal, then that’s what you have to do. If it’s not and it’s something that they’re just trying to obviously stall this thing along again, you know, getting pretty desperate there, absolutely not. You got to follow the law. If the law says you’ve got to let them in for whatever reason, you don’t really have a choice,” Abbate said.
Abbate said when he met with councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias late in 2020, they inquired about the city purchasing the theater. However, Abbate said, the deal with Adventure Church was already in place.
Arias denies that account of the exchange.
The theater has reopened for shows, hosting a comedy event last Friday and another one scheduled this weekend. Musical act Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is scheduled for Aug. 21.
No Transparency on City’s Filing
The city council never publicly discussed or voted on filing a petition. However, it did discuss the issue twice in closed session, with no announcement of any action either time.
The city attorney acts on the direction of the city council. The city is using outside counsel to handle the filing, the firm of Aleshire & Wynder based in Irvine.
It is unclear if Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and his administration aided in filing the petition. Dyer offered Adventure Church use of a city facility, the Memorial Auditorium, if it dropped its Tower purchase. But the church declined the offer.
There is no information on when the court will rule on the petition or which judge it was assigned to.
Lower Court to Decided Sale Notice Issue
In a recent ruling, the state Fifth District Court of Appeal declined to hear Sequoia Brewing’s request for a rehearing on stopping the sale before a full trial could be held. The ruling did leave open the possibility that Sequoia Brewing could make another injunction request.
Another pending issue, a lis pendens notice — a notation in county assessor records that there is pending legal action on a real estate transaction — will be settled in Fresno County Superior Court.
Judge Rosemary McGuire will hear that portion of the case on June 15. In an April ruling, McGuire lifted the lis pendens as part of her overall ruling on rejecting the brewery’s request to temporarily stop the sale.
The owners of Sequoia Brewing Company — J & A Mash and Barrel — appealed, and received a split decision, sending portions of the case back to superior court.