Eminent domain foes seek extra measure of security: San Diego CA Union-Tribune, 9/7/06

By Tanya Mannes

Three out of four residents [of Chula Vista] voted June 6 to approve a ballot measure that restricts the city's ability to seize private property.

Although the ballot measure – Proposition C – was successful, some Chula Vista residents still fear the city will abuse its eminent domain powers.

And so Earl Jentz, a landlord who spearheaded the ballot initiative, has announced the formation of a watchdog group, the Committee to Protect Proposition C, to make sure the city abides by the charter change.

“It's a group of people who were involved with Proposition C initially who want to ensure that the goal of it is protected,” Jentz said this week.

City Attorney Ann Moore on Tuesday expressed surprise after being informed of the new committee.

“What is there to protect? There hasn't been any challenge to it,” Moore said. “We're certainly not challenging it.”

Proposition C amended the City Charter to prohibit the use of eminent domain to seize private property on behalf of another private interest without voter approval. The City Council has authority to mount a court challenge but that hasn't happened, Moore said.

As the Nov. 7 election approaches, the four candidates for City Council and mayor are being asked whether they plan to uphold the charter change. The committee will consider endorsing someone in each race, Jentz said.

There are two races: For the mayor's seat, incumbent Steve Padilla is facing Cheryl Cox, a trustee for the Chula Vista Elementary School District; for the council seat, Councilwoman Patty Chavez is facing Rudy Ramirez, a local business owner.

Looking forward, Moore said Proposition C won't have an immediate effect on redevelopment plans. Before the June election, city policy already prohibited the use of eminent domain on residential property in a residential zone.

“There was not any project in the pipeline that would involve the use of eminent domain at the time Proposition C was approved by voters,” she said.

Proposition C also won't affect the city's plans for a hotel and convention center on its bayfront, Moore said. Most of the bayfront is public tidelands under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Diego, not the city. The remainder is controlled by private owners who are willing participants in the development plans.

In Chula Vista, 74 percent of voters supported limiting the city's eminent domain power to a strictly defined public use.

Traditionally, eminent domain has been used by governments to remove blight, such as abandoned buildings, or for public projects. But increasingly, governments have invoked eminent domain to bring in development that generates tax revenue.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that upheld the right of local governments to seize private property – even homes – to further economic development goals. The court's June 2005 decision, Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., caused a public outcry. The court stated that local jurisdictions could enact their own restrictions on eminent domain.

Chula Vista was among the first cities to respond to the court ruling. Under Proposition C, if the city wishes to seize land for a nonpublic use, such as shops or condominiums, it first is required to get voter approval. The charter change preserves the city's eminent domain power for a public use, such as schools or roads.

Connie Mihos, a Garrett Avenue homeowner of six years, gave $100 to the Committee for Private Property Protection, which handled the Proposition C campaign. She and her husband also walked precincts.

“The Kelo decision really shocked us into action,” said Mihos, a court reporter. “People are just angry about (potentially) losing their homes. I think eminent domain is a 'gut' issue that everybody feels strongly about.”

A similar ballot measure seeking to limit the use of eminent domain will go before California voters in November. If approved, Proposition 90 will amend the state constitution. Moore said that would override the Chula Vista eminent domain measure.

Local business owners bankrolled the Yes-on-Proposition C campaign, which reported $173,300 in contributions.

Jentz, who was the biggest contributor, said the measure's overwhelming success demonstrates that city residents want to protect property rights. He and his wife, Karen, gave a total of $76,774.

“It's an issue we feel strongly about,” Jentz said.

The Jentzes' business is property management. They own more than 20 properties in Chula Vista, according to San Diego County property tax records.

Other significant donors included Chula Vista mobile home park owner Gerald Fick, who gave $58,500, and Silent Salvage Search, a subsidiary of Standard Auto Recycling, which contributed $10,000.

The campaign in support of Proposition C was expensive, beginning with a costly legal battle to get it on the ballot. Most of the money raised was spent on legal fees, political consulting and direct mail.

The campaign began with a petition drive to force the city to put the measure on the ballot. The group submitted more than 10,000 signatures to the city. But then the City Clerk's Office informed organizers that more signatures were needed and that it was too late to gather them.

The group sought legal advice on the validity of the petition from two law firms with expertise in land use: Foley & Lardner; and Burke, Williams and Sorensen, both based in Los Angeles. The committee paid a total of $47,000 to those firms, which also provided advice on ballot language.

The city attorney eventually said the group could submit additional signatures. Before that became necessary, the City Council responded to public pressure and voted unanimously to add the measure to the June ballot.

Chula Vista's new land-seizure rules

City voters approved Proposition C on June 6. The ballot measure amends the City Charter to limit the city's use of eminent domain for private development.
  • Specifically, the city is prohibited from seizing land on behalf of a private entity unless it obtains voter approval through a ballot measure.
  • Proposition C preserves the city's right to seize land for a public use, such as schools or roads.

San Diego CA Union-Tribune: http://www.signonsandiego.com