Local Officials Gamble with Property Rights in Preparing for Rohnert Park Casino

City officials in Rohnert Park, Calif., voted last week to use eminent domain to seize private land for the purpose of widening a road to accommodate a new gaming mecca. Back in May, the California Legislature rubberstamped what will soon be the largest casino in the Bay Area. Construction began soon thereafter on a site located just outside the city limits of Rohnert Park.

While the casino itself remains quite controversial amongst locals (a poll taken last April cites 68 percent disapproval of the project, and two lawsuits have already been initiated by a local group contesting the legality of the casino location), Rohnert Park city officials have turned a blind eye to opposition. Instead, they’ve been negotiating with Sonoma County officials and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria on how to best prepare for the substantial increases in tourism and traffic that the new gambling site will provide for the area.

Since the city’s recent insistence that a stretch of Wilfred Avenue near the casino site be widened to ease the burden of traffic on casino commuters, local property owners have faced pressure from both the tribe and the city to agree to lowballed offers or face the threat of eminent domain proceedings.

Tawny Tesconi, one of the concerned property owners, stressed “We feel that their offer prices are extremely low and have expressed that,” but the city has ignored the Tesconi family’s concerns, as well as its own mistake in the appraisal process: though the Tesconi family has been paying taxes on the property as commercial property, both the city and tribe both appraised it as farmland (which is typically valued lower). “At this point it doesn’t seem that they are willing to reopen the appraisal or the assessment,” she lamented.

Another property owner, Chris Christoforidis, expressed disappointment and disbelief in the city’s poor communication and disregard for his family’s property rights: “You can’t just take someone’s property…How would the city feel if I did an eminent domain on one of their kitchens so that I can have dinner tonight?” Nicely stated.

Arguing that expansion of the road and the required seizure of the properties will be in the “public interest,” City Manager Gabe Gonzales has attempted to explain the necessity of invoking eminent domain to take from property owners what they have rightfully earned: “What we’re proposing here is taking a very depleted road that has no improvements and we’re looking at certain improvements that we believe greatly benefit the overall community.” Of course, belief hardly constitutes guarantee, much less proof.

Nonetheless, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s shocking decision in Kelo v. New London, “Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory” as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted in her dissent.

Why did the city wait until this particular moment to assert its “public interest” claim with regards to improving the road? Why did it not assert that claim five years ago, before the casino had become a reality? Perhaps by “public interest,” the city actually means “private interest,” as in the private interest of Station Casinos, the company that will be managing the $800 million casino once it opens. After all, neither the casino managers nor the local governments would want out-of-town paying customers inconveniently stuck in traffic when they could be at the casino helping to increase profits and local tax revenues for Rohnert Park and Sonoma County. As far as protecting property rights is concerned for these local government gamblers, apparently all bets are off.

— Robert Fountain
Robert Fountain is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.