State leader slams California City's eminent domain policy: Bakersfield (CA) Californian, 7/26/05

Attorney general alleges 'most serious violation' of redevelopment in state

By Joe Mullin

The state Attorney General's office denounced California City's use of eminent domain in a brief filed Tuesday, calling it "the most serious violation" of redevelopment law in the state.

In the brief filed in Kern County Superior Court, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer described the case as a "poster child for this abuse."

"There's tremendous economic incentive to condemn vacant land as blighted," said Deputy Attorney General Dan Siegel. "But redevelopment means what it says. It's conditional on finding urbanization and blight."

California City added more than 15,000 acres to its redevelopment area in 2003, saying the land was legally "blighted" and opening it to the use of eminent domain.

That addition is being challenged in a lawsuit brought by N.L. Neilson, a California City resident who owns land near the project — though not land condemned by the city. The state's brief supports his suit.

The suit has been a continuing headache for the city as it continued to force land sales on behalf of Hyundai, which built a test track in the city and began operations this year.

"My feelings about Mr. Neilson are not particularly good," California City Mayor Larry Adams said in an interview last week. "I don't think he cares about anybody's rights. He just likes doing this stuff. We followed the law."

All but 76 of 203 parcels the city eventually took possession of were forced to sell using eminent domain. About 16 parcels are still in lawsuits or negotiations, even though the test track has been in full operation for almost six months.

The case could set standards for the use of eminent domain in California following the Supreme Court's June ruling in Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.). In that decision, the court said redevelopment agencies may condemn land for private development.

"Kelo reinforces the importance of upholding California law because we have a higher bar, and that needs to be respected," Siegel said.

But California City attorney R. Bruce Tepper said the Attorney General's brief is based on statutes that aren't relevant to the city's case, and that he will challenge the filing in court.

Tepper added that eminent domain was necessary to make the plots usable. Without it, "it's impossible to do anything with this property, other than be a burden," he explained.

But Siegel said the city is abusing the law for its own gain.

When land is condemned by a city's redevelopment agency, taxes go to the agency instead of being shared with counties, special districts and the state. That can lead to misuse of the law, said Siegel.

"Agencies are especially tempted to abuse redevelopment law by improperly classifying undeveloped land as blighted," Lockyer wrote in the brief.

Increasing cities' tax revenue by condemning vacant land was not the Legislature's intention, Siegel emphasized.

Vacant land should only be condemned when the lots are "postage stamp lots," he added. Nearly all the lots in question are 2.5 acres or larger. A few are as large as a square mile, according to the brief.

After the filing, Lockyer said in a statement that redevelopment law should be used wisely — "not to chase the quick buck."

June Ailin, an attorney for Neilson, echoed that sentiment.

"They were counting on the fact that it's California City and no one is paying attention," Ailin said.

Hyundai representatives could not be reached Tuesday. The corporation isn't mentioned in the state's brief, though the city acknowledges it is the driving force behind eminent domain proceedings.

Bakersfield Californian: www.bakersfield.com