State Senate OKs bill to trim eminent domain : San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 8/31/05

By Michael Gardner

Jarred by stories of shattered dreams, California lawmakers took a first step yesterday to temporarily harness the power of local governments to seize private homes through eminent domain.

However, tales of mom and pop shops shuttered by public agencies to make way for larger tax-generating retailers failed to persuade senators to extend the same protection to businesses.

Their reluctance could ignite an initiative tapping into what appears to be a growing public backlash to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the broad eminent-domain powers in Connecticut.

In the first crucial test of the California Legislature's response, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would impose a two-year moratorium on taking homes for private projects, giving the state time to study whether to impose new limits.

Some Democrats conceded that they remain wary of wading in, but still provided the 5-2 majority vote to keep the bill moving to give supporters time to hammer out some outstanding issues that threaten to keep it from reaching the governor's desk.

"We're asking for an extraordinary remedy, but do we have an extraordinary problem?" asked Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who nevertheless supported the moratorium in AB 1162.

Taking stock of the outpouring of reports of businesses, churches and homes being seized to make way for big-box stores and hotels, Cedillo urged caution. "Too often we legislate by hysteria," he said.

Majority Democrats derailed SCA 15, a broader constitutional amendment that would have barred all seizure of private property unless it was for a public use, such as roads or schools. Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, and others agreed to shelve a narrower version protecting homeowners, SCA 12, until hearings can be held this fall.

San Diegan Jody Carey, who was ensnared in a high-profile eminent-domain proceeding, argued in vain for a broad ban on seizures.

"They answer to no one," said Carey, whose nearly half-million-dollar City Heights home has been coveted by an obscure redevelopment authority pursuing a large housing project.

The San Diego Model School Development Agency has retreated for now, but Carey says a blanket ban, not a moratorium, is the only way to save his home from being bulldozed.

"The bill will give them two years to lick their wounds and come right back," he said.

But officials with redevelopment agencies that use eminent domain sparingly say problems are overblown and that overreacting could eliminate a valuable tool to chase out drug dealers, remove toxic waste and revitalize neighborhoods.

"It's a nuclear blast," said John Shirey, who represents redevelopment agencies, generally an arm of city or county governments.

But that blast still may be leveled at redevelopment agencies at the ballot box.

Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, a strident critic of eminent domain, said influential supporters are ready to begin collecting nearly 600,000 signatures to place a constitutional amendment before voters that would restrict the use of eminent domain to public needs, such as freeways and hospitals.

San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com