Some San Benito County farmers and ranchers are concerned about the implications of a recent Supreme Court ruling in a major eminent domain case and are hoping they won’t be directly affected.
In Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court ruled June 23 that the city of New London followed Connecticut law when it took private property using eminent domain procedures and handed it over to New London Development Corporation, a private entity controlled by the city government. The court ruled public use could encompass economic development, even private development, so long as it avails a public purpose.
Previously, the use of eminent domain had been restricted to the taking of private property for public use, like building a road.
One California Legislator has decided to do something to protect farmers from abuse of the new ruling.
State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) announced August 3 that he had amended a routine transportation bill he had previously introduced, Senate Bill 1099. The new language would preclude local government in California from exercising the power of eminent domain for the purpose of transferring ownership of private farms, which he considers vital to the state’s economy, to non-public entities or for non-public use.
“There is too much at stake to leave our valuable farmlands vulnerable to government entities that are always looking for more taxes to fuel more spending,” Hollingsworth said in a press release last week. “It’s important that we do what we can to protect the most vulnerable properties, family farms.”
The bill is in the hands of the Senate Rules Committee waiting for a committee assignment, which would most likely be to the Senate Agriculture Committee. A vote on the bill may could come next January. Hollingsworth has also co-authored a state constitutional amendment that would protect all private property from the impact of the Kelo decision.
Assemblyman Simon Salinas (D-Salinas) said he had not yet had time to look at the recently amended bill proposed by Hollingsworth. Salinas didn’t know if the same situation that occurred in Connecticut could ever happen in California, because the states have different laws.
“We need to look at it and see if it makes any sense and applies to California,” Salinas said. “We need to see if there is a need for such legislation.”
Local farmer Joe Tonascia said the Supreme Court decision was “absolutely wrong.” Tonascia understands when eminent domain procedures are used to acquire private property for public use. However, he believes it is quite different when private property is taken from one person and given to another.
“It’s scary how far (the decision) can reach,” Tonascia said. “It’s going to affect a lot of people.” He had not heard of Hollingsworth’s bill, but said he would support any bill that protects private property.
County Supervisor Anthony Botelho, an apple grower and large land-owner, said he could never imagine participating in eminent domain procedures that would take land from a private owner in order to hand it over to another private owner. He believes such action can be entirely avoided by scrupulous planning.
“That was a very unfortunate decision,” Botelho said. “And I hope that it hasn’t put San Benito County farmers at risk.”
California Farm Bureau Federation media spokesperson Dave Kranz said the organization was upset by the Kelo v. New London decision and has concerned expanded eminent domain powers would put local farmers at risk.
“We were very disappointed by that ruling,” he said. Kranz had not yet looked at Hollingsworth’s bill.
Following the Supreme Court decision, several federal and state legislators have taken action which they hope will benumb the impact of the high court’s decision on local farmers. In June U.S. Senator John Cornyn, (R-TX), introduced legislation aimed at limiting the use of eminent domain for economic development.
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