LaMalfa rips ruling on eminent domain: Red Bluff (CA) Daily News, 12/2/05

Yolo judge OKs acquisition of Conaway Ranch

Yolo Superior Court Judge Timothy Fall Thursday ruled that Yolo County can acquire Conaway Ranch through eminent domain proceedings.

"The Yolo County Board of Supervisors applauds the court's decision," said board chair Helen Thomson.

"Today's ruling allows us to preserve the most significant remaining open space and agricultural lands in the county, for the future of our county, by protecting it from private land speculators and developers and keeping our water in Yolo County," Thomson said.

Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, doesn't see the victory as a positive. In fact, in a statement released Thursday, he decried the ruling.

"It is disappointing to be that the ruling was against the legal owners of this land, but it only underscores what needs to be done to safeguard private property ownership in this state," said LaMalfa.

"The land grabbers and their apologists would say that we already have adequate protection," LaMalfa said.

"This decision clearly illustrates the deficiency in law that judge and jury would make such a finding regarding farmland legally purchased and owed by any Californians," LaMalfa said.

Conaway Ranch, east of Woodland, consists of 17,300 acres of agriculture and wetlands habitat and 50,000 acre-feet of water rights.

In the spring of 2004, National Energy & Gas Transmission, Inc. (NEGT), a bankrupt Maryland-based company, put Conaway Ranch up for sale in a closed-bidding process not legally open to the county as a public agency.

According to a press release sent by Yolo County, after attempts to negotiate with NEGT were rebuffed the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on July 8, 2004, to take action to protect and preserve Yolo County's largest remaining agricultural and open space area.

Supervisors chose to initiate eminent domain proceedings, a process which includes determining fair market value of the property for which the owners would be justly compensated.

Five months into the process, a consortium of land speculators and the Sierra Health Foundation, led by a well-known developer, Steve Gidaro, purchased the property from NEGT.

"Had we not done all we could to acquire this resource for public benefit, to ensure that the ranch is preserved and protected for future generations, we would have sold out the citizens of Yolo County," said Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan. "This is an issue of public interest versus private profiteering."

LaMalfa said that the case should be a rallying point to further pursue the cause of eminent domain reform through a reluctant Legislature.

"If they will not do the right thing, we will join the people of California to do it ourselves with a ballot initiative in November 2006."

This action allows the county to move forward with the acquisition process. LaMalfa added that there isn't a legitimate reason for the county to do this.

"This story is not over by any stretch, and I expect more legal wrangling on Conaway," said LaMalfa. "But beyond that, we must secure statewide property rights and stop these abuses, such as Yolo supervisors' efforts to take Conaway Ranch, that represents no legitimate public use."

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