By Mike Sprague
Forty years ago, the city of Santa Fe Springs used eminent domain to acquire several hundred dilapidated homes many having cardboard walls and no plumbing. Today, the Flood Ranch area of modern homes stands on that property.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding and expanding the use of eminent domain the taking of private property by government to improve the property and get rid of blight backs up the city's right to take substandard houses for redevelopment.
But a move is now under way by Democratic and Republican lawmakers to rein in the use of eminent domain.
Legislators have introduced bills that take varying approaches. Republicans have proposed banning the taking of private property for private use. The Democrats' proposals would not allow governments to use eminent domain to take owner-occupied residential homes.
"To take your home to give it to me for my profit because I have friends on the City Council and you don't is abhorrent to every tradition of American and English law," said Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks. "A very alien doctrine has subverted our historic property rights."
McClintock has proposed a constitutional amendment that would ban all governments from taking private property if it is to be used by a private developer but would continue to allow the use of eminent domain for public purposes such as building new freeways and schools.
But Whittier-area city officials say that proposal would cause economic development to suffer.
"These bills are ill-advised because they would put a chilling effect on a community's ability to reinvent itself," Whittier City Manager Steve Helvey said.
"The real issue is a city's ability to redevelop itself when there's a recalcitrant business owner or property owner. Do you build a property around a holdout?"
McClintock said eminent domain used for private development is too much power for local government to have.
"It is now entirely permissible for government to seize the home of one person for pennies on the dollar to give it to another not for some vital over-arching public necessity but simply because the new owner can pay more taxes than the old," he said.
La Mirada Councilman Hal Malkin said property owners are still protected under the law, even with eminent domain in place.
"Is it unfair?" he asked. "Not as long as they're fairly compensated. They are to receive a fair (market) value."
The McClintock proposal could short-circuit some on-going development plans, local officials said.
La Mirada officials are prepared, if necessary, to condemn some commercial properties to allow a new Home Depot to be built and also are working to improve other shopping centers.
Another project to build 44 single-family homes where a small shopping center is located also could be jeopardized if the city is stripped of its eminent domain power, La Mirada City Manager Andrea Travis said.
Santa Fe Springs is prepared to use eminent domain or the threat of it to acquire property for a 500-unit housing development, officials said.
Both projects will help meet state housing requirements for cities, officials said.
"It's an absolute contradiction," Latham said. "How can the left hand demand we meet housing requirements and then the right hand hinders our ability to do so by taking away a tool?"
The Democrats also have proposed changes to eminent domain laws.
State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D- San Diego, and Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, have proposed placing a two-year moratorium on eminent domain when used to take owner-occupied residential property for private use. They also propose a constitutional amendment that could make such a ban permanent.
Torlakson said the proposal offers a balanced approach.
"I've introduced legislation to control some of the abuses where eminent domain has been used with the heavy hand of government, not looking at the interests of single-family homeowners," he said.
"We've also understood there are many positive aspects of redevelopment and the use of eminent domain to fight crime, get crack houses out of neighborhoods and clean up neighborhoods so all property values can rise," Torlakson added.
If it passes, the Kehoe-Torlakson proposal is not likely to have much of an effect on Whittier-area cities in the near future, local officials said.
When the Whittier City Council created the Whittier Boulevard Redevelopment project, it excluded single-family homes situated on the boulevard from eminent domain.
Two years ago, La Mirada added the Foster Park area to its redevelopment area but also waived the power of eminent domain for the area.
Fred Latham, Santa Fe Springs city manager, said that his city, too, is unlikely in the near future to condemn any owner-occupied homes. But that might change someday, he added.
"Twenty to 30 years from now, we may have to go in and do a project similar to Flood Ranch," Latham said. "Houses can last only so long. Otherwise we could wind up with deteriorating houses and substandard neighborhoods."
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