Council to review eminent domain policy — North County (San Diego & Riverside CA) Times, 10/17/04

By Laura Mitchell

The [Murrieta CA] City Council will consider Tuesday approving a new policy on eminent domain cases, where government has the right to take land at a fair market value, as determined by a court of law.

The council agreed last week to review its policies after coming under fire for several months for some eminent-domain cases where the city initially offered nothing for land needed to widen Jefferson Avenue from Murrieta Hot Springs Road to Juniper Street.

Under the proposed revised policy, the city will offer a fair market value for the property — an offer based on the value of the land only, not taking into account the cost of road improvements — a calculation that led to the "zero dollar" offers to the five Jefferson property owners.

Mayor Jack van Haaster said Friday the city considered the value of the road improvements — which the city is paying for — but that scenario assumed the owner is ready to sell the property soon.

"If the property owner is not ready to do that yet, if he wants to stay in the house, the idea that the road improvements have value diminishes," he said.

The proposed policy, to be considered by the council at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday at City Hall, 26442 Beckman Court, will also get the council involved in the process sooner, eliminating what some council members have called a heavy-handed process.

"I didn't like how we had the iron hand in this," said Councilman Warnie Enochs. "It makes the council look like a bully, and I didn't like the idea of being a bully."

Van Haaster said he thinks it's important for the council to have a chance to look at each case before deciding to begin eminent domain.

In the past, the first time the council got involved is when the city and the property owner couldn't reach an agreement. But as the elected body, the council has discretion with money and can decide to make an appropriate offer, if it is a responsible use of taxpayer funds, van Haaster said.

Once the case goes to a public hearing, the council is not supposed to talk about the value of the land, only if taking the land is for the public good, he said.

Enochs said the new policy change would only be effective if the city hired fair appraisers. An appraiser should look at the property while considering the needs of the property owner, not the needs of the city, he said.

A fair appraiser would consider that the city requires homes be 20 feet from the road, Enochs said. Some of the recent eminent domain cases would have had Jefferson Avenue as close as 6 feet from the front of some of the homes.

The city has asked its appraiser to re-evaluate his approach to the properties.

"The city needs to follow it's own ordinance on setbacks," he said. "If the home is that close to the street, the city needs to move the house or find the owner another residence."

North County Times: www.nctimes.com