Beware council's eminent-domain tactics: Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun, 12/4/05

Valley Voice

By John Howell

There's a quiet revolution going on across the country. It is the direct result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo case, which ruled that local governments could take private property and give it to a large developer under the guise of doing what is necessary for "the greater good."

This is happening in our valley right now, championed by members of the Cathedral City Council. And they want to keep it quiet because recent surveys have shown that more than 90 percent of all Americans - rich and poor, liberal and conservative, black, brown and white - all oppose these "takings" for "the public good."

Last month, Congress passed an anti-takings law (HR 4128) by a 376-38 vote. The bill restricts the use of federal funds on private development projects that seek to use eminent domain. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Todd Aikens, R-Mo., said, "The taking of private property to be given to private interests for economic gain flies in the face of basic American values, and jeopardizes the American Dream." Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, are sponsoring a bill in the Senate to put similar restrictions on cities and states. Around the country, state governments are beginning to address these takings, which most of their constituents see as unfair and anti-American.

That hasn't stopped the members of the Cathedral City Council. They are moving quickly to take whatever property they can before any such law may be enacted.

Hitting close to home
My mother and father are veterans of World War II. Mom was an Army nurse, and dad was a private. They met in England during the war, fell in love and were married there. After the war they came back to America - like so many others - and began to build a life.

Some years later, they followed other family members and migrated to Southern California and have lived in the desert for more than 30 years.

During the 1960s, members of my family bought some commercial frontage property on Highway 111 in Cathedral City. They bet all that they had on this property, and worked hard for decades to improve it and make it successful so that it might support them in their later years. It was how things were done in America.

The Cathedral City City Council has already taken one of their properties "for the greater good," and is now in the process of taking another to build yet another car dealership. This second property provides a significant part of the income my mother and father, both in their 80s, live on each month. I expect they will lose the property and the income. I expect the city again will offer a low-ball price for their land. Just how many car dealerships does Cathedral City need?

What they will do
Before this happens to you, you should know what you can expect from the Cathedral City City Council if they come for your property. They will:
  • Work with a large developer and give you no chance to be part of the project.
  • Not tell you about it; you'll find out by reading it in The Desert Sun.
  • Offer you 50 percent or less of the appraised value of your land when they take it.
  • Be angry with you when you object.
  • Force you to pay attorney fees to go to court to try to get fair value for the land they are taking.
  • Allow you three minutes at their public council meeting to protest; they then will talk as long as they want about you and give you no time for rebuttal.
  • Continue to cite "the public good" as their reason contrary to overwhelming public opinion.

The city has identified 50 other parcels of land they might take in the future. Your property could be next.

My family is not opposed to community development - only to taking land from the unwilling. In an effort to save our property, we offered to work with the city to redevelop our land. We submitted several plans and offered to change or modify them to better meet the city needs. It has become very clear that the city only wanted the revenue that car dealerships can bring. It was all about the money.

Take action now
So what can you do? You can contact your state legislators. The Supreme Court, in its Kelo ruling, left open the option of each state to set its own laws in this matter. California needs to move on this now.

Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, has introduced a bill (SCA15) in the State Senate, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, has one in the Assembly.

Neither has gotten out of committee yet, and your representatives need to hear from you. Municipalities - who want to keep the power to take land - have considerable influence in Sacramento. Voters have more.

If you're a resident of Cathedral City, you can let the council know how you feel. They have not had a bright light shined on this behavior, and when that happens by the council members hearing from you, we could hope they listen. They will talk about their financial problems - many cities have them - and they see this as a way out (The "greater good," remember?).

They are enamored of the tax revenue that auto dealerships bring in. But at what point do they say "enough"? At what point do we say it? At what point are there enough car dealerships? My family thinks there is room for other businesses, and we want to continue to provide those opportunities.

And you can ask the council members, in whatever city you reside, to find ways to live within their means. As citizens, we all have to do that. City governments need to be fiscally responsible so that they don't have to resort to these tactics to try to balance their budgets.

So when the hard-earned tax dollars from legitimate Cathedral City businesses isn't enough for the elected officials at "Taj Ma-city Hall," perhaps the fault is with the officials and not the citizens. They won't see it that way, of course. So beware. My family is already paying a large price for "the greater good." You could be next.

The Desert Sun: www.thedesertsun.com