By Martin Stolz
After hearing tales of government abuse, two San Diego City Council members Monday ordered city officials to research procedures used in condemning and acquiring private property in redevelopment areas.
Donna Frye and Brian Maienschein, members of the council's Government Efficiency and Openness Committee, listened to three hours of testimony from redevelopment officials and opponents of eminent domain, the procedure that enables the government to force the sale of private property for other uses.
The order comes after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the right of local authorities to use eminent domain in redevelopment. Several states have enacted new limits on its use.
Redevelopment in California is designed to clean up blighted areas where government or private efforts alone are not expected to alleviate the problems. In San Diego, eminent domain has been used for such projects as highways, schools, affordable housing, the Horton Plaza shopping center and Petco Park.
In San Diego, City Council members sit as the redevelopment agency. While redevelopment projects and negotiations are carried out by city staff members and two nonprofit city corporations, the authority for eminent domain remains solely with the council.
Karen Frostrom, an attorney who represents a client fighting the Centre City Development Corp. in an eminent domain case, described a process rife with abuse and stacked in favor of developers.
Under state law, the property owner is invited to participate in a redevelopment project. However, Frostrom decried the way property owners are left out for months or years of "secret negotiations" with developers eyeing a property.
In other instances, she said, officials have issued vague – and possibly bogus – environmental cleanup orders to pressure reluctant owners to sell their property.
Speakers following Frostrom described fearing the loss of their homes or businesses after redevelopment project areas were designated as blighted, an initial step in the process. Others said developers view eminent domain as a cheaper way to acquire property than through negotiations.
However, David Parsons, a planning consultant, said redevelopment has worked, partly because of the judicious use of eminent domain. In one area, a redevelopment project area was adopted with an exemption for owner-occupied homes, he said.
"Essentially, that's how the process should work," he said. "I ask that you not remove that tool" of eminent domain.
For intransigent property owners, though, eminent domain is sometimes needed.
Peter Hall, president of Centre City Development Corp., who didn't appear at yesterday's meeting, has said he supports proposed state legislation that would impose a two-year moratorium on the use of eminent domain against homeowners and collect data on its use and abuse over the past 10 years.
The committee ordered the Redevelopment Agency staff to evaluate the effects of 10 proposed changes to San Diego's use of eminent domain in redevelopment. The proposals aim to rein in the use of eminent domain – using mediators, requiring large deposits from developers and making the process more transparent, among others things. The City Attorney also was asked to draft an ordinance.
Some of the proposed changes to eminent domain would require time to study, Frye said. However, she asked for staff reports clarifying the definition of "public use" within 45 days.