Santa Monica Officials Brace for Eminent Domain Battle: The Lookout News (Santa Monica CA), 5/23/06

By Olin Ericksen

With a ballot battle looming over California cities’ right to seize and resell private land, Santa Monica officials are not waiting for November to begin fighting the controversial state proposition.

How much compensation the City pays for private land, what it can seize and how future public development will unfold in Santa Monica are all at stake, many City officials agree.

In response, the City Council Thursday night will likely ask staff to research how to fortify several City zoning codes, ordinances and policies to limit the effects of the measure, which is known as the Anderson Initiative.

The initiative “purports to be an anti-eminent domain measure, but goes far beyond that,” said Council member Kevin McKeown, who placed the item on the agenda. “It would severely constrain Santa Monica's zoning and environmental policies.”

McKeown noted that the proposed measure comes as the City is updating its Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) — key components of the General Plan that will dictate future development in the City for years to come.

Financed by New York developer and millionaire Howie Rich, the initiative takes aim at California cities’ power to purchase private property from an unwilling seller and then sell or lease it back for a different private use — a power generally known as eminent domain.

More than a million signatures were gathered by last week, likely guaranteeing that the measure will come before California voters this November.

If passed, the initiative would mandate that eminent domain be used only when governments want to seize property for public use, such as for highways or schools, according to a legislative analysis of the law.

It would also likely jack up how much the government must pay owners in “fair market value” by redefining the term “as the highest and best use the property would bring on the open market,” analysts said. In addition, owners would presumably be compensated for things such as lost income and relocation costs.

The measure would also “limit government’s ability to adopt certain land use, housing, consumer, environmental and workplace laws and regulations, except when necessary to preserve public health or safety,” according to the legislative analysis.

Proponents of the law say it is needed to keep the government’s hands off of private residences and businesses, which may be standing in the way of a more attractive tax base or future development.

Opponents of the measure — who see it as a threat to municipal powers — began mounting a coordinated campaign against the measure last week, with officials belonging to the well-financed and well-connected California League of Cities voicing some of the staunchest opposition.

Now, Santa Monica City Council members have begun looking to blunt the effects the proposed law would have on the beachside city, asking staff to scrutinize City policies, zoning codes and regulations to try to eliminate the measure’s potential impacts.

While seldom used in recent years, eminent domain has been utilized in several large public developments in Santa Monica, according to Jeff Mathieu, who as the City’s director of Resource Management is a key negotiator for the City on land acquisitions.

Several small businesses on two city blocks were scooped up in the late 1970’s using eminent domain to pave the way for Santa Monica Place, the indoor mall Downtown, said Mathieu

In the 1980’s, eminent domain was used to demolish housing to make way for more than 200 beachside condominiums on Ocean Avenue in the Ocean Park Neighborhood, known as the Sea Colony, Mathieu said.

Most recently, it was employed to gather a few parcels on Sixth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard for the development of the new public library, and create a larger right of way on Cloverfield Boulevard.

While Mathieu said Santa Monica rarely uses eminent domain, he predicted that the Anderson Initiative would have a “far reaching” impact.

In addition to making it more expensive for cities to buy land and setting conditions on what land is purchased and why, it’s largest impact my be unforeseeable, he said.

“It basically has the impact of the unknown,” said Mathieu. “We don’t know what the future generations of Santa Monica will need” when it comes to public development.

Proponents of the law – including conservative state legislators and libertarians – say the reforms are necessary to halt what they see as an abuse of power by governments seizing land from private hands.

And they are putting up the financial backing to make sure the measure goes to the voters.

Rich has invested nearly $1.5 million of his own money to gather the signatures necessary for the ballot and secured high-profile consultants for the campaign, according to news reports

In recent weeks, several paid petitioners have been stationed outside dozens of Santa Monica business gathering signatures, mirroring a statewide campaign.

That’s about a dollar a signature, analysts note, and the ballot battle has only just begun.

The Lookout News: http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ssm_site/the_lookout/news