City Council divided on issue of eminent domain: Auburn CA Journal, 6/13/07

By Jenna Nielsen

The Auburn City Council will have to hash out its eminent domain policy within the city's redevelopment area at a future meeting.

After a split vote of 3-2, the council decided to direct staff to bring back a stricter policy that would limit the redevelopment agency's authority to use eminent domain in the redevelopment area for traditional public purposes only, not to transfer property from one private property owner to another.

The redevelopment plan already contains a provision restricting the use of residential eminent domain authority.

Once the policy takes effect, it will remain for 12 years.

Councilmembers Kevin Hanley, Mike Holmes and Keith Nesbitt voted to further restrict the ordinance.

"The controversial issue we have been dealing with is the use of eminent domain for private purposes and I would prefer that we use cooperation rather than coercion," Hanley said Tuesday. "There have been abuses with government using these tactics and this guarantees that a future council can only use eminent domain for traditional purposes."

Mayor Bob Snyder said he trusts future councils to make decisions that have the best interest of the city in mind.

"I trust the city council and the community values that would guide the city council," Snyder said. "Right now, no one on the council wants to use eminent domain, but who knows what the future will hold?"

Snyder said he couldn't think of an example of when it would be necessary to use eminent domain, but that he did not want to tie the hands of a future council.

"We really need to trust the city council and give them all the powers they might need in the future," he said. "To do otherwise doubts their ability to make decisions for the city." Hanley said when it comes to protecting property rights, even an honest council would not make a difference.

"Elections of good people cannot stop the problem by itself," Hanley said. "A lawyer from Wal-Mart could come in and tell a small property owner, 'if you don't take this price, the city can come in and take your property.' Even an honest councilmember may not know when those threats are happening because they aren't happening in the public."

Recent misinformation floating about the city's eminent domain authority resulted in some city staff members to go on damage control.

Many in the community had expressed concern that the city's recent approval to expand its redevelopment area to more than 480 acres could mean some commercial properties within city limits are targeted for eminent domain, specifically Eisley's Nursery.

But that's a harsh rumor city officials have said just isn't true, and is a gross exaggeration of what the redevelopment plan actually means.

Council members have said on repeated occasions that the use of eminent domain would be used as a last resort, and that no specific properties have been targeted.

In a March 28 Journal article, City Manager Bob Richardson said he had already begun receiving phone calls about the city's authority to use eminent domain within the redevelopment area.

"We have had some residents contact us concerned about what this all really means," Richardson said. "We are not going to go out and bulldoze anyone's property." The Auburn City Council unanimously voted to expand the existing redevelopment project area May 7. City leaders say that the project will help eliminate blighted properties and areas within city limits.

Eisley's Nursery was just one of dozens of area businesses that were labeled as "blighted" in a 131-page report conducted by the city and GRC Consultants, based out of Orange, Calif.

The report included dozens of photos of properties throughout the city, none of which were named, but were labeled as blighted.

Based on the city's definition, blighted areas include high crime, declining property values and unsafe conditions.

Asked last month whether he believes Eisley's has been targeted by the city, Earl Eisley responded that he has no way of knowing if that is true or not. "At this point, the city has taken pictures and published our business as blighted," Eisley said. "And even if this City Council can't take property through eminent domain, the next council can - there is no security for us down the road."

The council, during a joint session with the Auburn Urban Development Authority, voted to approve the expansion of the existing targeted area, which was originally approved in 1987. Parts of Nevada Street, Highway 49 and Blocker Drive are included in the new area.

The decision by the two agencies, which are governed by the City Council, will also increase the limit on the amount of tax percentage the existing area may receive. If the property values go up as the city works to beautify the area, the city would benefit and so would residents, officials say.

Auburn CA Journal: http://www.auburnjournal.com