5/28/2007

'Reform' that's worse than doing nothing: Orange County CA Register, 5/24/07

Editorial

Government-backed measure on reining-in eminent domain would do little good

No one should be shocked by dishonesty in the political process, but an effort by the League of California Cities and other big-government organizations to supposedly restrict the abuse of eminent domain is so dishonest that it's worthy of caution.

Consider: The groups that over the years have zealously defended the use and abuse of eminent domain by governments to transfer properties from private owners to big developers to enhance tax revenue are proposing this "eminent domain reform package." That, in itself, should cause Californians to pay careful attention to the details. It's not hard to find their motive. Property rights advocates who support true reform are promoting a measure for the 2008 ballot after the defeat last November of Proposition 90.

Prop. 90 would have restricted eminent domain for nonpublic uses and required compensation for owners whose property loses value because of changes in government regulations, such as growth restrictions. The latter protection turned out to be controversial and hobbled the campaign; the new measure does not include it.

Fearful of this new initiative are the League of Cities, the California Redevelopment Association, the League of Conservation Voters and other groups that lobby for maximum government control over private property. So instead of just opposing it, they have offered an alternative. They intend to confuse voters by pretending that their initiative offers real protections. It does appear to offer some protections, but it includes loopholes for government so broad that it renders any such protections useless.

Here's the key description of the measure, ACA8, from its proponents: "Prohibit government from using eminent domain to acquire a small business to transfer to another private party, except as part of a comprehensive plan to eliminate blight and only after the small-business owner is first given the opportunity to participate in the revitalization plan."

California law already requires a blight finding before using eminent domain. Blight is a wide definition. Most of the egregious abuse cases we have written about in California over the years – i.e., taking church property to build a Costco, taking businesses and giving them to a developer, etc. – could continue if this initiative passes, because in those cases officials found a consultant to declare "blight."

The initiative applies only to owner-occupied homes, not apartments. It defines small businesses in a way that only a small number of them would be protected. It does not protect churches, farms, investment property, vacant land and homeowners who have not lived in their house for more than a year. When we questioned the League about these problems, we received a rebuttal that argued: "It is not easy for a city to determine that blight exists. A city cannot simply declare a neighborhood blighted." So, proponents admit, that their initiative continues to allow for the taking by government of "blighted" properties, which is the current, unacceptable standard.

ACA8 offers a few tweaks that would protect some homeowners and increase compensation for some small business owners, but passing it would be worse than passing nothing. It would convince the public that reform has taken place, while changing nothing of substance. That is the goal of proponents. Fortunately, there's likely to be a good alternative on the ballot. More on that in coming months.


Orange County CA Register: http://www.ocregister.com