Welcome to western San Bernardino where property owner’s cries of “leave my ‘house’ alone” are as constant as the big rumbling dirt haulers clearing blighted private land for public projects.
Inland government officials say attacks on eminent domain could doom these and dozens of other redevelopment projects slated for local low-income neighborhoods.
Officials have launched a renewed campaign lobbying state and federal legislators to preserve the decades-old practice of taking private land for public projects.
Last year the practice came under attack when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld local governments’ rights in the case of Kelo v. City of New London to seize private property and give it to another private party.
Critics charge that the ruling violated the U.S. Constitution and stripped property owners of the right to defend their property against government takeover. In the wake of the ruling state and federal governments rushed to consider placing widespread restrictions on eminent domain.
In California, state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, has re-introduced legislation aimed at reforming the state’s law on eminent domain. The proposed legislation seeks to bar governments from using eminent domain to take property and hand it over to another private party. His 2005 proposal was defeated along party lines.
“This isn’t a question of partisanship or ideology. This is a about protecting the rights of property owners, many of whom are elderly and poor,” McClintock said.
Three other organizations, including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, are also moving to launch ballot initiatives curbing eminent domain.
The impending legislation has officials in Riverside, San Bernardino, Fontana, Yucapia and other rapidly developing Inland cities looking to Sacramento and Washington D.C. for help in navigating a growing firestorm swarming with angry property owners and vociferous property-rights advocates.
Fontana City Manager Ken Hunt and other government officials claim the attacks hamper efforts to revitalize crumbling communities. “The firestorm over eminent domain ties our hands. The issue is largely misunderstood.”
Hunt and other Inland officials claim skyrocketing construction costs, make public-private partnerships not only attractive but necessary.
“It’s a fact of life. Taxpayers are often reluctant to fund costly redevelopment projects in low-income areas,” says Seattle-based developer James Avery Talis. Talis says efforts to build low-income housing, libraries, parks and make road improvements under a public-private partnership will suffer from the eminent domain backlash.
“Uttering the word is like hollering fire in a theater.” Talis is currently mired in legal proceedings over attempts to seize several structures in western Riverside. He cited an example where his firm revitalized an aging waterfront community after the city of Seattle seized 16 rundown bungalows with the help of eminent domain.
“Those waterfront homes were once valuable assets. But when they fell into disarray they became health and safety hazards. They essentially became liabilities to the homeowners, their neighborhood and the city.”
Talis admits seizing a homeowner’s property is almost never a pleasant experience. Governments and developers take a lot of heat. “But in reality our goal is to improve living conditions. We create long-term assets.”
Norma Halstead has mixed feelings about eminent domain. Three years ago she lost her 3rd generation Fontana home to a low-income housing complex. “They came, they saw, they took.”
Halstead fought the city and lost. She now owns a new home in Moreno Valley.
“Eminent domain is like good and evil. on one hand the practice robs people of their shelter, on the other hand the practice is sometimes necessary to get rid of blight and provide safe clean low-income housing.”
For 34 years Halstead and her family suffered the ill-effects of unpaved streets, blowing dust, flooding, rodent infestation, public dumping, abandoned vehicles, rampant crime and other unsafe living conditions.
“City officials turned their heads the other way while we wallowed in squalor. We were poor and stuck until the developers came. There’s good and bad in the practice,” said Halstead. She says the low-income housing built on the seized land improved the quality of life for her family and many of the same residents forced to sell their homes.
Sen. McClintock is unfazed by critics of his legislative proposal. He says his efforts are not aimed at barring governments from using eminent domain for strictly government projects. “Public support for protecting property owners is overwhelming. We’re looking for a happy medium.”
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