Eminent domain battle closes in: San Mateo County (CA) Times, 4/28/06

Campaign to limit land grabs nearing deadline for signature gathering

By Todd R. Brown

Maybe you've lived in your home for decades, raised your kids there, got to know the neighbors, finally paid off the mortgage. Maybe some issues have cropped up over the years — boarded-up houses, vacant lots, aging roadways.

But it's your home — something to hold onto, one constant in an amorphous world.

Then maybe the government steps in, saying your land could be put to better use. Maybe it offers you a price to sell your home, to demolish it and put in a shiny office park or a retail complex.

What can you do? As a property owner, you think you have a say in what happens to your neighborhood, but maybe the city invokes "eminent domain" and takes your home anyway.

Could it happen here? In a few commercial instances it has, but some residents want to guarantee that no land seized through eminent domain will pad a private developer's wallet.

"We worry about displacement of our neighbors who've lived here for years," said Annette Hipona, a Daly City resident and Democratic activist who is part of a drive to get the "California Eminent Domain Limitations Act" on the November ballot.

The act's supporters want to get 800,000 signatures by Sunday. The proposal, spurred by last year's Supreme Court decision to uphold a city's right to eminent domain for economic development, would in most cases outlaw property seizures to boost tax revenue.

"All they need is somebody that comes in and says, 'You could have an awfully nice shopping center there,'" Hipona said.

Hipona said she lives in the "redevelopment sandwich" between Junipero Serra Boulevard and Mission Street, which has seen the mixed-use Pacific Plaza spring up with a 20-screen cinema near the Daly City BART station — a lucrative development that nets big tax revenue for the city.

Not far away, Daly City used eminent domain to buy two auto-body shops along Mission Street so that 95 condominiums could be built there as part of the mixed-use Landmark Plaza, according to Richard Berger, assistant director of the city's Economic and Community Development Department. Construction began in the fall and should be completed within two years.

Berger said the city resorted to eminent domain only to get the last piece of the land for the project in an area that he called underutilized, with mostly vacant lots there "for many, many years." He said the city pursues mixed-use projects to create jobs and to provide affordable housing.

City Councilwoman Judith Christensen, who lives in Old Daly City — which she called "the meat in the sandwich for redevelopment" — said the matter is more complicated.

The devoted Democrat said she worries that "our core constituents are the target" of redevelopment, including minorities and immigrants, low-income workers and fixed-income seniors. She said the median income per household in Daly City is $70,000, a high benchmark for affordable housing.

Berger said affordable units among the Landmark condos have an income ceiling for resident families of $95,000.

"I'm very concerned about losing the actual working-class neighborhoods we have in the Bay Area," Christensen said. "People look at our land ... and it's just too tempting."

Hipona said the issue goes beyond traditional political lines.

"Real people live in these areas which are the new Gold Rush for developers," she said. "It's not a partisan issue, it's a people issue, it's a neighborhood issue, it's a city issue."

To that end, local Democrats have teamed with Republicans to push the cause.

"It's probably the one thing all Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, 'decline-to-states' agree on — that your property should not be taken for private use," said Loraine Wallace Rowe of San Jose, a Republican who chairs the coordinating committee for the eminent domain initiative [http://www.limiteminentdomain.org].

Wallace Rowe, who lived for a time in San Carlos, said one of her rental properties was threatened with eminent domain in 2001 as part of San Jose's plan to redevelop the downtown.

"If we would tell people this is happening, they would say, 'They can't do that, this is America,'" she said.

The plan for high-density, high-rise construction got the nickname "40 sites," and Wallace Rowe said eminent domain foes finally won an ordinance that the properties could not be taken without the owners' willing consent. She said the city used "drive-by blight surveys" to condemn the 40 properties for such problems as wet leaves on a home's tennis courts and garbage cans left on the street — on trash pickup days.

"This isn't what blight was supposed to be," she said.

More important, Wallace Rowe said forcing someone to sell violates the principle of a willing buyer and a willing seller. And there are some who would never be willing to part with their land.

"You get someone who's on a piece of property, they're in their 80s, they've lived there all their life. They want to die there," she said. "If you don't have a right to be secure in your property, what right do you have?"

Christensen ran for the Daly City Council in 2004 on an anti-eminent domain platform. She said the current drive has brought "boxes and boxes and boxes" of signatures in, and she hopes to have 600,000 of them verified to submit to county registrars by a mid-May deadline so people of all political stripes can have their say on the matter in November.

"We are united solidly on this topic," Christensen said of the non-partisan drive. "We really are much more similar than we are different. The issue of eminent domain is just such a powerful American issue, and just the idea that it's your hearth and home, it's your job, it's your ability to make a living, it's everything Americans believe in.

"And then what, the government takes that away from you? That strikes most people as highly un-American, whether you're on the right or left."

San Mateo County Times: http://www.insidebayarea.com/sanmateocountytimes