San Bernardino County scrambles to protect power of eminent domain: Riverside CA Press-Enterprise, 6/19/07

By Duane W Gang

San Bernardino County is moving to pass new laws to protect its ability to use the power of eminent domain to acquire property. Other cities and counties across the state are doing the same.

To meet the requirements of a state law approved last year, local redevelopment agencies must outline their programs to use the often controversial land-acquisition tool. If not done by July 1, the agencies could lose the power of eminent domain.

San Bernardino County supervisors take up ordinances today, while the city of San Bernardino passed similar measures Monday.

Kathy Thomas, head of the county's redevelopment agency, was unavailable Monday for comment.

But county spokesman David Wert stressed that passage of ordinances for the Speedway, Cedar Glen and Mission Boulevard redevelopment areas does not mean the county has plans to use eminent domain to acquire land.

"It's controversial when ... the government goes in and takes a person's home and forces them to relocate when they don't want to," Wert said.

"The redevelopment agency has never done anything like that," he said. "When the redevelopment agency has used eminent domain in the past, it is to acquire portions of people's property to put in place infrastructure improvements."

Eminent domain allows a government to take property without an owner's consent as long as a fair market price is paid.

The proper use of eminent domain has become a more heated topic of debate since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the city of New London, Conn., could use eminent domain to take private land and turn it over to another private entity if it would result in a more economically beneficial use.

A local voter-approved change in San Bernardino County's charter, known as Measure O, prohibits the county from using eminent domain to turn land over to another private entity. But the measure, approved in November, does not apply to the redevelopment agency, a separate legal entity that supervisors oversee.

Wert said the ordinances do not contain any specific properties targeted for acquisition. And he said Measure O, placed on the ballot by supervisors, shows how reluctant current supervisors are to use their eminent domain power.

Wert said county officials believe if no action is taken by July 1, the redevelopment agency would no longer be allowed to use eminent domain.

"It is not prudent to slam the door on that by not filing a plan," he said.

Each of the county ordinances up for a vote contain time limits on the use of eminent domain, ranging to 2016.

Riverside CA Press-Enterprise: http://www.pe.com