California Finally Seems Ready to Reign in Eminent Domain Abuse

The California courts seem to be stepping up to the plate to provide property rights protections to homeowners and business owners threatened by eminent domain abuse. On April 21, 2011, a California Superior Court judge ruled against National City, California is its efforts to seize a successful youth center serving underprivileged kids under the state’s so-called urban blight provisions. The City wanted to give the property to a private developer so he could build luxury condos. According to the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit public interest law firm defending the youth center,

“The Court struck down National City’s entire 692-property eminent domain zone in the first decision to apply the legal reforms that California enacted to counter the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision in 2005. This ruling, which found that National City lacked a legal basis for its blight declaration, reinforces vital protections for property owners across the state, and underscores why redevelopment agencies should be abolished.

“The Court also ruled that National City violated the Due Process clause of the U.S. Constitution in failing to provide the CYAC with statutorily required information prior to an important public hearing.

“Finally, in a holding with implications well beyond redevelopment law, the Court also held that when the government retains a private consultant to perform government functions—in this case, documenting the existence of alleged “blight” in National City—documents that the private consultant produces are public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act. The Court also set a clear standard for what government agencies have to do in searching the records of their private consultants in response to a Public Records Act request.”

This is a very important case because courts have traditionally given cities vast discretion and lattitude over designating properties blighted. Often, the process for determining blight is so vague that the procedures are little more than legal formalities used to justify seizing property for redevelopment. In the case of the Community Youth Athletic Center in National City, the property and business was thriving, but the city wanted to see luxury condos replace it (and other businesses).

Reason has been critical of blight designations to seize property via eminent domain and published one of the most extensive policy analyses to date on the subject. Our complete work on eminent domain can be found here.

Also, an excellent new book edited by economist Bruce L. Benson and published by the Independent Institute takes a hard, critical look at how eminent domain has been used and abused by governments along with recommendations for constraining its use and protecting property rights.