9/16/2006

Cities' eminent domain in peril: Whittier CA Daily News, 9/11/06

By Mike Sprague

Even if voters in November reject Proposition 90, an initiative that would bar governments from confiscating private property for redevelopment projects, local redevelopment agencies face new, tighter restrictions if pending legislation is signed into law by the governor.

Four bills that seek to limit the power of eminent domain, which allows local governments to buy up private property to make way for revitalization projects, already have passed through the state Legislature, with strong bi-partisan support.

The four bills now are on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger's desk awaiting his signature or veto. On Monday, the governor's office declined to say whether he will sign or veto the bills. The governor has taken no position on the legislation, his office said.

The bills all would create more legal hoops cities would have to go through before using eminent domain or when expanding or creating new redevelopment areas.

"What I'm trying to do is make the redevelopment and eminent domain process more transparent to the average property owner, be they residential or commercial," said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, author of three of the bills.

One of Kehoe's bills, SB 53, would require redevelopment agencies to spell out when, where and how they will use eminent domain. It also requires that the agencies re-designate an area as still blighted before extending the life of a redevelopment area.

But city redevelopment officials, not surprisingly, say the current efforts to change existing redevelopment formulas will only make it harder to revitalize blighted areas.

"I sense there's a lot of knee-jerk reaction to a case that was an East Coast case that had no relevance in California," said Jeff Collier, Whittier's community development director. "I see the potential for somewhat hamstringing the City Council from having the flexibility to do a project or amend a project area when an opportunity may arise in the future."

Had it been the law, Kehoe's SB 53 could have held up Whittier's recent ruling to reinstate, for an additional 12 years, eminent domain in the lower Uptown area, Collier said. Had that been the case, the city would have had to pay as much as $50,000 for a new study to determine whether eminent domain should be reinstated there, he said.

That would be an unnecessary waste of time and money, he added.

"It's pretty fair to say at least in Whittier's case that we haven't seen any significant change in the area," said Collier.

Another pending bill by Kehoe, SB 1206, the most controversial of the four, tightens the definition of "blight," which cities must establish in order to create a new redevelopment area.

John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, said the bill would make it "much more difficult" to create new redevelopment project areas.

The bill's language eliminates some of the earlier definitions of "blight." Cities would have to list special factors that prove a potential redevelopment area contained no public improvements, or that it is not experiencing any normal investment activities one might to find in non-blighted areas.

SB 1206, also by Kehoe, makes it easier for residents to challenge a redevelopment project. It gives residents more time - 90 days, instead of the current 30 - in which to gather signatures for a voter referendum.

A fourth eminent domain bill, SB 1210 by Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Concord, would make it harder to government agencies to gain quick possession of private property through the use of eminent domain. It also requires agencies to pay up to $5,000 for an independent appraisal.

Pico Rivera City Manager Chuck Fuentes objects to Torlakson's bill.

"Unfortunately, this bill makes it more time-consuming and more difficult for redevelopment agencies to obtain orders of prejudgment possession," Fuentes said.

"While the Pico Rivera Redevelopment Agency has no current plans to exercise its power of eminent domain, this bill will place further burdens on that power, should the agency decide to use it."


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