Cities watch state eminent domain laws' impact on Gold Line projects: San Gabriel Valley (West Covina CA) Tribine, 9/4/05

By Gary Scott

As California lawmakers look to rein in the use of eminent domain by local governments, city officials are concerned the legislation now being considered could sidetrack pending redevelopment projects, including several planned around the Gold Line light rail extension.

The city of Monrovia has sounded the loudest alarm in recent days, saying its 40-acre Station Square development could be stalled indefinitely if the legislation passes.

"It would put cold water over the top of it," said Mayor Rob Hammond. "It could kill the project."

Hammond accused state lawmakers of grandstanding at the expense of local governments. "This is folks in Sacramento looking out for their political futures," he said.

San Dimas City Manager Blaine Michaelis, in a letter to Sen. Bob Margett, R-Diamond Bar, criticized lawmakers for playing a game of partisan one-upmanship. The legislation, he told Margett, is an overreaction to a "contrived" controversy.

"Why support measures that remove reasonable tools that may be needed to turn around struggling areas in California communities?" Michaelis asked. "What is the justification for these measures? Solutions without problems create problems."

The various legislative proposals are a response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, a Connecticut property-rights case that critics say vastly broadened the scope of eminent domain in the country.

"It is simply unconscionable for a government to take private property in order to give it to another private property owner," said the American Homeowners Resource Center. "That is the hallmark of dictatorship, not a democratic government."

The most aggressive response came from state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, who offered a constitutional amendment that would prohibit seizures except for clearly defined public projects, such as roads, parks or schools.

Senate Democrats killed the McClintock amendment Thursday, but have offered several less stringent measures in its place.

The first, by Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, would place a two-year moratorium on the use of eminent domain on owner-occupied homes for private projects.

Peter Detweiler, staff director for the Senate Local Government Committee, which Kehoe heads, called the bill a "prudent response" to the concerns voiced about eminent domain powers.

Additionally, state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, sponsored a narrower version of the McClintock amendment that focuses solely on protecting homeowners.

The state Legislature has until next week to pass legislation.

Representatives from Monrovia, San Dimas and Arcadia met with Margett recently to air their concerns about the bills. The senator said he understands the need for redevelopment but supports eminent domain reform.

"I just want to make sure that property rights are protected as we go through this process," Margett said.

City officials here say the claims of eminent domain abuse are overblown. San Dimas Mayor Curtis Morris said his city has used the power only once in the last 33 years, to condemn a dilapidated cement plant.

"The issue was not whether (the owner) was willing to sell," Morris said, "but a matter of price."

There are more than two dozen homes in the Station Square area, Hammond said. Without the recourse of eminent domain, the entire project could fall apart if only one of them demands an outlandish selling price from the city, he said.

Cities were given redevelopment powers to revitalize areas that are run-down, crime-ridden or contaminated. Once an area is declared blighted and a project is defined, the city can begin negotiating to buy up properties. The agency may ask the court to intervene and force a sale only if negotiations stall.

"The state law is so protective that you end up paying 110 to 115 percent of appraised value, and then you pay for relocation," Morris said. "California already has plenty of safeguards; it is not Connecticut."

Detweiler said the Kehoe legislation is aimed at agencies that use condemnation to drive out residents in order to enrich big-box developers.

"You can't take grandma's house to put in a Costco," Detweiler said.

But the broad language of the legislation undermines other important public goals, Morris said.

"The state is really supporting the idea of transit villages. If you want to accomplish what transit villages accomplish, you have to have the ability of eminent domain," he said.

Amendments now being offered as part of the legislation could alleviate restrictions on local agencies working on redevelopment projects.

For instance, the McClintock bill had the potential to block San Dimas from acquiring land for a Gold Line station. The more narrowly tailored Torlakson language should allow the city to move forward.

The cities of Azusa and Arcadia also are looking at how the legislation might affect their long-term plans. Neither city is as far along in planning as Monrovia, though both said they will consider redevelopment around the Gold Line stations.

Azusa wants to build a parking lot at the Azusa Boulevard station, and may look at further development in the area. "Eminent domain may very well play a factor there," said Councilman Keith Hanks.

Don Penman, assistant city manager for Arcadia, said city officials may start looking at a transit-oriented development around the Santa Anita station early next year.

The city of Claremont has already acquired all of the land needed for its Village West project.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune: www2.sgvtribune.com