National City ends legal scrap over eminent domain: San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 3/16/06

By Tanya Sierra

A resident's effort to limit National City's use of eminent domain has ended after National City dropped a lawsuit it filed against him that claimed his proposal was unconstitutional.

Though the issue is volatile, eminent domain has helped National City as it has slowly revitalized its downtown core in recent years. City officials have condemned several run-down businesses to make way for new developments, such as Education Village on National City Boulevard.

Over the last year several businesses have been bought by developers or condemned by the city to make way for upscale condominiums projects, which will begin cropping up within the next two years.

In December, Dean DeLibertis, a National City resident for six years, became involved with a group of business owners near 11th Street and National City Boulevard who are being forced to sell their properties to a developer. He began gathering support to place an initiative on the ballot to stop National City from using its eminent domain power “loosely.”

“I saw that the mayor and the redevelopment committee were using it to broker deals,” he said. “They were taking property from private owners and passing it on to large private corporations under the loose definition of public good.”

City Attorney George Eiser examined the wording of DeLibertis' proposal, then got City Council approval to file a lawsuit that would stop DeLibertis from putting the measure on the ballot.

“It was invalid in a number of respects,” Eiser said. “It dealt with redevelopment and eminent domain, which are subject to state law and not local law. If you're going to enact laws on the subject it has to be done at the state level and not the local level.”

DeLibertis' proposal would have severely limited National City's ability to use condemnation for economic development. That would have thwarted the city's aggressive redevelopment plan, which includes several high-rise condominium projects.

In Chula Vista, however, where the City Council allowed a similar initiative to be placed on the June ballot, officials said maintaining public trust was more important.

In the end, DeLibertis and his associates did not gather enough petition signatures to qualify the proposal for the June ballot, and he withdrew the petition last month.

However, at that point, the lawsuit had been filed. Eiser then asked DeLibertis to sign settlement documents saying the initiative was legally invalid. DeLibertis refused and hired attorney Steve Haskins because he did not want a judgment entered against him in court.

During a closed session meeting last week, the City Council decided to dismiss its lawsuit against DeLibertis since he had withdrawn his petition, Eiser said.

Nevertheless, Haskins responded to National City's lawsuit, saying it was invalid.

National City mayoral candidate Pearl Quinones issued a statement this week supporting DeLibertis.

“It is clear to me and others in National City that City Hall is way out of line,” she said.

Eiser said the action they took against DeLibertis was not malicious.

“We're not trying to pick on anyone or trying to keep anyone from putting something on the ballot,” Eiser said. “If laws are to be enacted, they should be valid.”

San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com