Voters will have say on eminent domain: San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 5/11/06

By Shannon McMahon

Amid growing concern about redevelopment and the increased power of government to seize private property, [Chula Vista] voters will decide June 6 whether to curb those powers in the city.

Chula Vista's redevelopment plan prohibits the use of eminent domain to seize homes in a residential zone. It does not, however, rule out condemning homes in mixed-use or redevelopment zones.

Traditionally, California and other states have allowed cities to use eminent domain to remove blight or for public projects. But increasingly, cities are using it to seize land for private development that generates more tax revenue. Current Chula Vista law doesn't rule out that use.

The June ballot measure would limit condemnation to a strictly defined public use, such as building a school or expanding a road. It also would require the city to keep properties it acquires through eminent domain for at least 10 years before selling them.

Chula Vistans for Private Property Protection spearheaded the effort to get the measure on the ballot. The group says it was motivated in part by the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., decision in June. In that case, the court ruled that local governments could seize private property and turn it over to private developers.

Initially, Mayor Steve Padilla opposed the measure. After increased community pressure, Padilla conceded and urged his colleagues to include the measure on the ballot.

Confusion over the ballot measure started in early February after the private property group submitted petition signatures for the amendment to the city clerk but fell short by 236 registered voters.

Group members initially turned in more than the 10,000 signatures they thought they needed to qualify for the June ballot, but the City Clerk's Office told the group that the measure in fact required more signatures. She also said the group could not tack additional signatures onto their original submission.

Angry petitioners began filling the audience at council meetings and calling for new leadership. Padilla and council members John McCann, Steve Castaneda and Patty Chavez are running for office in June.

The city attorney eventually said the group could submit additional signatures. Before that became necessary, the council voted unanimously to add the measure to the ballot.

Chula Vista officials contend that the city very rarely uses eminent domain.

Deputy City Attorney Elizabeth Hull said the city has acquired one property in the past 10 years using eminent domain. Hull said the city does not use eminent domain to take residential property in a residential zone.

The city's real property manager, Richard Ryals, said since 1995 the city initiated the eminent domain process in acquiring about 30 properties. In those cases, the property owners settled on a sale price before the cases went to court.

Steve Haskins, a Bonita attorney representing Chula Vistans for Private Property Protection, believes even though the city often hasn't had to follow through on eminent domain procedures, it wields a lot of pressure. Haskins said the eminent domain process is “inherently unfair” for the land owner.

“If a landowner has to pay attorney's fees and does not have enough money, they are forced to sell,” Haskins said in a February interview. “They are forced by the pressure of the lawsuit.”

San Diego Union Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com