By Michael Gardner
Staring at certain defeat, reform-minded Democrats on Wednesday abruptly shelved legislation that would have temporarily blocked government officials from seizing homes using eminent domain.
"We just did not have a critical mass on either side. We bowed to reality," said Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who was carrying one of the measures.
Mullin and Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, said they will convene hearings this fall to work on a compromise before submitting revisions in January.
"The issue is not going to go away," Kehoe said. "We will not abandon our efforts to protect the interests of our homeowners."
But the setback does signal a failure of lawmakers to forcefully respond to a growing public outcry over homes and businesses being taken to clear the way for high-rise development, malls and hotels.
Stories of mom and pop stores and longtime homeowners being chased out have clashed with urgent pleas to retain condemnation as a tool to drive out crack houses and revitalize downtowns.
The Legislature's response may be developed under pressure from an initiative campaign threatened by conservatives who want to restrict eminent domain to only public uses, such as schools or freeways.
Sticking points include whether to protect commercial as well as private property, how to impose a moratorium without delaying ongoing projects, assessing a fair purchase price and whether to make it harder to declare land blighted a requirement before condemnation.
Democrats earlier killed constitutional amendments carried by Republicans that would have imposed stiff limits on the authority of local governments to take private property.
Kehoe blamed Republicans for holding up progress, noting how they voted against the bills in committee.
"It's clear Republicans want to scare homeowners," she said. "That's bad policy, bad politics and bad behavior. We wanted a time out on eminent domain and they blocked it for political purposes.
However, Democrats hold majorities in both houses and could have easily passed either measure or both on to the governor if the issue had been a top priority, say some of those who had worked on the legislation.
Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Northridge, said he could have voted for a narrow moratorium, but only because it would have given homeowners a two-year reprieve.
The problem, he said, is that homeowners would still see their property values plummet because of the looming threat of condemnation two years down the road.
Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-La Mesa, who is carrying a narrow bill to protect farm land, said he could have supported a moratorium to protect homeowners.
"Obviously I am not opposed to incrementally fixing the problem," he said.
The measures were introduced in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Connecticut town's right to seize homes for a large-scale development.
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