Eminent domain guidelines passed: San Mateo (CA) Daily Journal, 11/15/05

By Michelle Durand

Redwood City [CA] leaders hope to stave off future squabbles over eminent domain by unanimously adopting property acquisition guidelines similar to those a civil grand jury suggested earlier this year.

The guidelines are not mandatory but the ad hoc committee in charge of their creation hope it pushes city staff and officials toward greater sensitivity and respect when contemplating land grabs. After the eminent domain policy used in connection with the downtown cinema project came under fire, the City Council began brainstorming better methods, said Councilwoman Rosanne Foust.

Unfortunately, according to Foust, the civil grand jury delivered its scathing report on the city’s eminent domain use without first consulting the officials involved or asking what was being done. If they had, she added, the jurors would have found that the city was already creating recommendations similar to those later issued in the report.

“The grand jury never ever called any of us sitting up here. They didn’t bother to. That’s sort of an interesting statement,” Foust said.

In April 2004, Judge Quentin Kopp ruled the city unlawfully seized private property and razed a building to make room for the 20-screen cineplex and parking garage on land bound by Broadway, Jefferson Avenue and Middlefield Road. James Celotti’s two-story building was taken on the grounds that a public parking lot would be built on the land but Kopp ruled it was in fact being used to benefit a private developer.

The city declared the block a blighted area and acquired it using eminent domain. Celotti later received a $3 million settlement.

Eminent domain does have its place, said Mayor Jeff Ira, as long as it is “not done in a way that would embarrass the city.”

Foust, who served on the committee with councilmembers Barbara Pierce and Jim Hartnett, said the key component to the new guidelines is recognizing the uniqueness of each property owner and the land parcel. While city interests may be benefited by taking private land, it is important to be sensitive to the intangible impacts on a person’s connection to the community, she said.

The guidelines help residents realize the city is “not just a faceless bureaucracy that is going to take people’s land,” said Councilman Ian Bain.

The adopted guidelines also establishes the mayor as the point person for any future land acquisition issues. City Manager Ed Everett will spearhead the distribution of the recommendation to city employees.

San Mateo Daily Journal: www.smdailyjournal.com