In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that approved the use of eminent domain for a private development project in Connecticut, a bipartisan group of volunteers is mobilizing to prevent similar situations in California.
“Despite what some legislators and lobbyists would like you to believe, the kind of abuse faced by Susette Kelo in Connecticut can and does happen in California,” explained Annette Hipona, the proponent of Measure 1198, the California Eminent Domain Limitations Act. Signatures are now being gathered to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.
The measure says simply that private property can’t be seized for economic development purposes, including private commercial enterprises and any projects designed to increase tax revenue, employment or housing density. It also sets up additional steps to ensure just compensation and clarify procedures in the exercise of eminent domain for public uses.
Its language is modeled on the Private Property Rights Protection Act (HR 4128), a bill passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives last November, which rescinds federal funding to any state and local governments that exercise eminent domain for economic development purposes.
Leo Sears, president of the Humboldt Taxpayers League, said that the initiative is appealing because it crosses political lines.
“This protects the public against having their property taken and given to private enterprise — it’s that simple,” he said. He and other league members are circulating petitions locally to gather signatures by April 30.
Loraine Wallace Rowe, chair of the Initiative Steering Committee in San Jose, said that the group has set itself the goal of collecting 800,000 signatures — “just to be on the safe side.” As a constitutional amendment, the initiative needs 598,105 registered voters to sign on.
Another, similar initiative is also in circulation: Measure 1204, the Protect Our Homes Act. It, too, limits the power of eminent domain for private uses and sets out detailed definitions of public use, procedural requirements and limitations.
Describing the difference between that initiative and hers, Hipona said in a news release, “Nothing has been added to our initiative by Sacramento lobbyists or power-brokers; we are nonpartisan, and all-volunteer.”
“That one is very lengthy,” Wallace Rowe said. “Ours is very simple.”
Humboldt County Community Development Services Department Director Kirk Girard said that the initiative does not have any immediate relevance at the county level.
“Our Redevelopment Agency doesn’t have eminent domain powers,” he said. “It wasn’t ever an issue from day one.”
County Redevelopment and Housing Coordinator Paula Mushrush seconded Girard’s assessment. “This ballot measure should not affect Humboldt County,” she said.
Eminent domain abilities are determined in the formation of a redevelopment agency.
“You can’t change that once you’ve formed an agency and identified redevelopment areas,” Girard said. “You’d have to go through the whole process again.”
Every jurisdiction has the right to exercise eminent domain for public uses, Mushrush pointed out, but only redevelopment agencies can use it for private projects — and because the county made the choice not to give its Redevelopment Agency that power in the first place, “I don’t think we’re going to go back to step one again,” Mushrush said.
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