Commentary

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.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.