Initiative challenging Conaway plan halted: Davis (CA) Enterprise, 3/6/05

By Elisabeth Sherwin

Woodland resident Michael Contreras received some discouraging news late last week when the county's legal counsel found the subject of his proposed initiative — eminent domain — could not be challenged.

Contreras wanted to put an anti-eminent domain initiative on the ballot. It would require Yolo County to stop all eminent domain proceedings until it had a majority of voters approving the action against an unwilling property owner.

Contreras announced at the Jan. 26 meeting of the Conaway Ranch Joint Powers Authority that he intended to move ahead on his initiative specifically to stop the county from taking the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch land by condemnation, a legal process that the county began last summer.

On Thursday, County Counsel Steve Basha released his legal opinion.

"This office has determined that the subject of the proposed initiative is not legally valid," he wrote. "This determination is based on appellate court decisions that hold that the power of eminent domain is a matter of statewide concern (and not subject to local regulation)."

More than 30 years ago the state Supreme Court ruled that a taking by eminent domain is not a municipal affair, but a matter of statewide concern that may be regulated only by the state Legislature.

"Accordingly, even if the proposed initiative were to obtain the requisite signatures and be approved by the electorate, it would be invalid," Basha wrote.

Contreras could not be reached for comment Saturday.

But Contreras was one of several opponents of the county's position on eminent domain and the Conaway Ranch who have spoken out recently, including the Yolo County Farm Bureau, the Yolo County Taxpayers Association, former state Sen. Jim Nielsen and the Sacramento-based People's Advocate.

The county additionally angered people when it canceled all future Conaway Ranch Joint Powers Authority meetings until the eminent domain issues is settled. The lawsuit is due to be heard in Yolo County Superior Court perhaps by June.

JPA members include Yolo County; the cities of Davis, Woodland, Winters and West Sacramento; UC Davis; and the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. The JPA was set up to manage the property, but the county is attempting to buy the property.

In July, Yolo County supervisors reluctantly moved to initiate legal eminent domain proceedings to acquire the ranch property in the Yolo Bypass for public benefit.

In mid-December, the property, which includes farmland and 50,000 acre-feet of water rights, was purchased by Steve Gidaro, a Sacramento developer, and a group called Conaway Preservation Group, LLC. The land was purchased from the National Energy and Gas Transmission Inc., formerly known as PG&E Properties. The purchase price is believed to be about $60 million.

The Conaway Ranch JPA had been meeting monthly but little action could be taken while the county is involved in the court action.

"The county's involvement in eminent domain proceedings have, for the short term, made it practically impossible for the county to fully utilize the technical expertise of the authority members in developing a long-term management plan for the ranch," said Suzanne Mikesell, county public information officer.

"If and when the county becomes the owner of the ranch, it will be in a much better position to work with JPA members to develop a long-term management plan for the ranch," she added.

For this reason, Supervisor Mike McGowan, chairman of the Joint Powers Authority board, requested that JPA board meetings be postponed.

"Upon the successful conclusion by the county of its eminent domain proceedings, JPA board meetings will reconvene and the county and the JPA board will seek public input and participation into the development of an effective long-range management plan for the ranch," Mikesell added.

But several groups and individuals are urging the county to end its eminent domain effort.

"I believe it is time to reconsider," said former state Sen. Nielsen. "The magnitude of this undertaking and fiscal consequences, the lack of public input and knowledge, the concomitant lack information and direction among JPA members, the lack of planning, the accruing costs of consultants and legal fees warrant a 'whoa' to the eminent domain proceedings."

However, if the eminent domain process is halted, it won't be thanks to a voter-approved initiative.

Public documents relating to the Conaway Ranch can be found at the county's Web site, www.yolocounty.org

The Davis Enterprise: www.davisenterprise.com