Council backs away from clarifying city eminent domain policy: Manteca CA Bulletin, 3/15/07

By Jeff Benziger

Eminent domain - which is the act by which government can force the sale of private property for the public use - has long been controversial. It even proved to be controversial when the Ceres City Council spoke about its own policy on Monday.

The council backed away from adopting a resolution which would have clarified the council's own policy about eminent domain.

Representatives of the building community had asked the council to clarify its views on eminent domain, sending staff scrambling to research the issue and to forge a resolution. The council's view is that eminent domain will be used by the city as a last resort to obtain land for rights of way in the creation of development master plans or infill projects. The tool would only be used after good faith efforts to acquire property failed.

A developer who spurred the matter, objected to the resolution. Scott Stringer representing the Maple Glen master plan, is fearful that the policy will prevent him from getting reimbursed for off-site work required by the future master plan.

Planning Director Ken Craig said the policy doesn't change the law which the city must follow for reimbursements. Despite efforts to reassure him, Stringer's attorney, George Petrulakis, was still unsettled about the city's intent.

“Simply said,” noted Mayor Anthony Cannella, “it (resolution) says we play by the rules.”

“If we're not doing anything other than adding clarity,” said Councilman Chris Vierra, “why are we doing this? It seems to be creating a lot of controversy.”

Craig answered back: “If you did not put that in writing, it might not be clear to the community.”

But Vierra said he didn't feel comfortable rubber stamping all considerations for eminent domain. Vierra said there is a uniqueness to any situation and that eminent domain may need to be considered on a “case by case” basis.

Councilman Ken Lane agreed. He noted that he cannot recall any instance in which the city used eminent domain to acquire property for streets or parks or other facilities.

Also weighing in their concerns was the Building Industry Association of Central California.

City Manager Brad Kilger said when he arrived at City Hall he learned that a lot of council policy were only spoken but not in writing. As it turned out, the first attempt to put policy in resolution form and get away from a “make it up as you go” policy happened to be a volatile one, he said.

Cannella said the resolution, had it passed, would not have changed anything.

“It doesn't give any new power and it doesn't take it away. It's really much ado about nothing.”

The resolution was not voted on for lack of a motion.

Resident Len Shepherd had his say about eminent domain, especially if not done for public use. He called condemning property for another development a “heinous” act.

“You can't give fair market value. There is no fair market value if the person doesn't want to sell,” said Shepherd.

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