Ruling on eminent domain causes ripples of concern

The U.S. Supreme Court’s split decision to expand the power of local
governments to force property owners to sell out to expedite private
development was widely viewed as a death knell for the rights of citizens to
their own property. In fact, the ruling thus far has had little impact in
California–and is unlikely to in the future, barring changes in local
redevelopment laws.

“What it means, on its own, for a California resident is squat,” said A.J.
Hazarabedian, a Glendale-based attorney with a statewide practice
specializing in eminent-domain proceedings. “And I don’t see the Legislature
anytime soon amending redevelopment law to allow the transfer of private
property to private ownership.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in June 2005 in the Kelo vs. City of New
London case said a property owner could be ordered to sell out in order to
make way for private development, regardless of whether the owner’s property
officially had been declared to be blighted.

California’s local governments and redevelopment agencies generally follow a
decades-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that said eminent domain was a
legitimate public action to take private property to serve the public good,
including the elimination of blight. Property could be transferred to a
private owner, such as a developer, but that property first had to be
legally defined as blighted or as serving another compelling public
interest, according to prevailing legal interpretations in California. “The
[U.S. Supreme] Court just took that a step further in Kelo, and said the
city didn’t have to declare the property to be blighted,” Hazarabedian said.

The upshot is that local governments across California, who already were
attuned to public concerns over eminent domain prior to the Kelo decision,
are especially sensitive now. Some local governments are placing resolutions
before voters in June to reassure them that eminent domain won’t be abused.

“No elected official is going to want to vote on eminent domain without
thinking long and hard first. It’s not a decision you like to take. It’s a
really tough decision, and local officials are really aware how gut
wrenching it can be,” said Megan Taylor, a spokesperson for the League of
California Cities.

“There’s been lot of misinformation in the media about the Kelo ruling,
there are misperceptions. It didn’t change law in California, and California
has a much tougher standard for taking private property from one person and
giving it to another.

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