City looks at eminent domain: The Voice of San Diego (CA), 9/13/05

This land is my land
By Andrew Donohue

City Councilwoman and mayoral hopeful Donna Frye pushed the issue of eminent domain abuse into the forefront of the city's business and the mayoral campaign Monday, urging the city to reconsider policies that she says put the profit of a few ahead of the interests of home owners and small business owners.

First in a morning committee hearing and later at a press conference hosted by her mayoral campaign, Frye joined a growing chorus nationwide questioning how eminent domain is used in seizing private land.

The Government Efficiency and Openness Committee, chaired by Frye, heard the pros and cons of the history of redevelopment law Monday morning. The committee then recommended that the full City Council limit the government's ability to take property and adopt other policies that protect and better inform property owners of their rights.

"The simplest way to discuss this with the public is to say to them that the public has a right to feel safe … that their businesses and their homes will not be taken by government and handed over to another private property owner for profit," Frye said.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city of New London, Conn., in the landmark Kelo case, which allowed governments to seize private land that is deemed "blighted" and give it to another private entity or landowner if the transfer is found to be in the public's best interest.

However, the ruling did leave open the possibility for local governments to craft their own laws in regards to eminent domain. Efforts in the state Legislature to tailor the state's laws have to date failed, prompting Frye to review the city's policies.

The issue has hit home locally. Ahmed Mesdaq, owner of the Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee Lounge, recently lost his battle with the city. Shortly after remodeling his café in the Gaslamp Quarter, the Afghani immigrant was informed that the city would be seizing his land in order to make way for a Marriott Renaissance Hotel that will bring more tax revenue into city coffers. He quit his legal battle against the seizure in June, saying he was exhausted physically and financially.

A redevelopment project in City Heights has also raised the ire of local property owners and opponents of current redevelopment policies. Jody Carey and Dennis Wood say they bought and remodeled a home there in early 2004, only to find out later that year that their property could be seized and passed along to a private developer to build condominiums.

The Encinitas City Council in July voted to limit its ability to seize private land.

Redevelopment officials defended their work at the hearing, saying that between 80 and 90 percent of all properties are acquired through friendly negotiations and not eminent domain.

A spokesman from the Jerry Sanders' campaign said that the former police chief, Frye's opponent in the November runoff election, believes that eminent domain is an important tool in redevelopment. However, the spokesman said, Sanders also believes that officials have abused a loose definition of the term "blighted."

The council committee recommended Thursday that the full City Council: do away with its powers of eminent domain; monitor negotiations with a third party mediator to ensure that property owners aren't threatened or intimidated; enact strict guidelines for developers to meet before using eminent domain; make sure that property owners receive just compensation; and require that negotiations be made public record.

She said she hopes to see full council action within 30 to 60 days.

The Voice of San Diego: www.voiceofsandiego.org