Second eminent-domain measure hits the streets

A coalition led by the League of California Cities and state redevelopment agencies will take to the streets this week gathering signatures for their own eminent-domain ballot initiative. The move is seen by Capitol insiders as a defensive maneuver, just in case a more restrictive eminent-domain measure, which also would phase out rent control statewide, qualifies for the June 2008 ballot.

The rival initiative is being pushed by the California Farm Bureau and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Both initiatives are gathering signatures as the Legislature continues to try to hammer out a compromise to curb local governments’ eminent-domain powers. While the signature gathering marks an escalation in the game of chicken between local governments and property-rights groups, there is some guarded optimism that it ultimately may lead to a brokered, legislative compromise.

In the meantime, the coalition led by the League of California Cities and the League of Conservation Voters hits the streets this week. And property-rights groups announced this week that they had secured the funding necessary to qualify their measure for the June 2008 ballot. The fundraising drive for that measure is being led by former Congressman Doug Ose.

Two differing constitutional amendments, one authored by Republican Assemblywoman Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, and the other by South Gate Democrat Hector De La Torre, are pending in the Legislature, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are hopeful a deal can be reached before the Legislature adjourns next month.

Eminent domain has been a hot-button issue around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Kelo v. New London. In that case, the court expanded the definition of “public use” in a 5-4 decision, ruling that governments could seize property from one private owner and transfer it to another private owner for redevelopment purposes.

The decision set off a revolt among property-rights groups around the country. In 2006, California was one of a handful of states to vote on an eminent-domain measure. With a well-financed opposition, and in a strong Democratic year, the measure was defeated narrowly, 52-48. Opponents of the measure said it went too far, and even some taxpayer groups came out against the initiative. Supporters of this year’s initiative reportedly tangled with Proposition 90’s proponents, in particular New York financier Howard Rich.

“We supported Prop. 90, but not actively,” said Jonathan Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. But he says, “It was not done well. It was not the way we would have proceeded.”

If the Coupal-backed measure does qualify for the ballot, local governments and environmental groups want to make sure that their measure is on the ballot to compete.

The main differences between the two reflect some of the major differences between Walters’ and De La Torre’s proposals. The local governments’ measure says government cannot use eminent-domain powers to seize owner-occupied residences. Coupal and his supporters say those protections should be extended to multi-family dwellings, as well as owners of agricultural land and small-business owners.

In a preview of what a campaign against the Coupal measure may look like, backers of the local-government measure say their campaign may not have very much to do with eminent domain. Instead, they will focus on language in the measure that would phase out rent control around the state.

“The no campaign will be focused on rent control,” said Mike Madrid, a spokesman for the League of Cities. “A lot of the apartment owners they say they’re trying to help are disavowing the measure.”

Coupal said inclusion of language that would abolish rent control is consistent with the principals of the initiative. “What good is Kelo protection if the government continues to tell property owners what they can and cannot do,” says Coupal. “The government should not regulate the sales prices or lease price of property.”

Walters’ legislative proposal, ACA 2, does not contain the rent control language.

Backers of ACA 8 says they are dismayed that the Jarvis coalition is going forward with its initiative, particularly because Coupal was involved in some of the drafting of De La Torre’s initiative.
Coupal said he “did have some input into earlier versions [of ACA 8], but ultimately there was a position taken that we just could not agree to.”

While the two groups prepare to square off at the ballot box, legislative negotiators are scrambling to reach a compromise before the end of this year’s legislative session in hopes of heading off an expensive ballot fight.

Coupal dismissed hopes of a legislative compromise, saying De La Torre’s measure was probably not salvageable. He says the fact that this new initiative is beginning the signature-gathering process is because proponents “realize the legislative effort is DOA in both houses.”

Walters, who is spearheading the negotiations for Assembly Republicans, would not go quite that far. Though she was vacationing during this Assembly recess, she responded to e-mail questions for this story.

“If those who utilize eminent domain are willing to make significant and meaningful concessions to protect private property owners, a compromise might be possible,” said Walters. “However, those of us who want to see real protections for property owners will not support a phony constitutional amendment that is drafted simply to appease the outrage of the public in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision.”

De La Torre was also vacationing and was not available for comment.

Though neither side wanted to get into details of the ongoing negotiations in the Legislature, a sketch of a potential compromise is beginning take shape.
Those who say De La Torre’s measure does not go far enough want to ensure some eminent-domain protections for churches and agriculture land owners. Many have voiced concerns that the compensations for small-business owners whose land is taken for redevelopment purposes are not sufficient as currently drafted in ACA 8. And there seems to be some potential wiggle room on the issue of residential property owners, with some concessions possible on low-density, multi-family units.

Walters said that while negotiations continue, she did not want to get into details of what a deal might look like. “Because we are currently in the midst of discussions to see if a compromise is possible, it is not prudent to lay out all of the protections we would require,” she said. “But a compromise must include true and extensive protections from eminent-domain abuse.”

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