2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: California Gets A “D-”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—California home and small business owners have reason to be concerned according to a 50-state eminent domain report card released today. In the two years since the infamous Kelo eminent domain ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed eminent domain for private gain, California’s legislature seriously considered no meaningful reform and the state’s abusive redevelopment statutes continue to leave all property owners at risk.

“California homeowners are no more protected from eminent domain abuse today than they were the day the Kelo decision was announced,” said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, a national grassroots organization that examined and graded eminent domain laws for each of the 50 states since the Kelo ruling. Read the report at: www.CastleCoalition.org/publications/report_card.

The report stated, “As citizens of an environmentally conscious state, Californians will be disappointed to know that the five eminent domain bills signed into law in 2006 were basically a waste of paper. In a state where thousands of properties have been threatened and/or condemned in the last decade, these bills scarcely hinder the rampant abuse of eminent domain.”

The report pointed out that California is the home state of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one the champions of eminent domain reform at the federal level, yet the State Assembly dismissed more robust and permanent protections for private property rights and instead passed a package of five bills that do very little to ensure that citizens’ homes and businesses are safe from tax-hungry government officials and land-hungry developers. Senate Bills 53, 1206, 1210, 1650, and 1809 create a few additional procedural hoops for condemning authorities to jump through, such as requiring more details about the proposed use of the targeted property and additional findings of blight when renewing a blight designation. These bills are mostly cosmetic and will not prevent determined officials from taking private property for another private party’s benefit.

According to the report, Senate Bill 1206 came the closest to substantive reform by trying to address California’s broad definition of blight, but it failed to make any significant changes. The state’s redevelopment statutes still leave almost any property at risk of condemnation. If Californians’ properties are truly going to be protected, the Legislature must ensure that properties may be taken only if they are an immediate threat to public health and safety, and that this assessment must be made on a property-by-property basis.

In November 2006, Californians considered Proposition 90, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would have addressed property rights protections in the state constitution. Unfortunately, even that proposed amendment lacked the strong public use language necessary to ensure the security of homes, businesses, farms, and houses of worship. Probably because of a highly controversial provision on regulatory takings, the measure narrowly failed.

Among the states that passed the strongest reforms protecting property owners are Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, each of which received an A or A- grade. States that received F’s were: Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

“In only two years since Kelo, 41 states have reformed their laws to offer greater protection to small property owners,” said Jenifer Zeigler, legislative affairs attorney with the Castle Coalition. “But much more work remains if homeowners, small business owners, churches and farmers in California and beyond are to be safe from the unholy alliance of tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers.”

The report seeks to step back and evaluate the legislative work that has been done and is left to do. It finds, “Some states have passed model reforms that can serve as an example for others. Some states enacted nominal reform—possibly because of haste, oversight or compromise—and need to know what is left to fix. And finally, there are those states that have failed to act altogether, leaving home, farm, and business owners threatened by Kelo-type takings and beyond.”

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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, the Institute for Justice’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205 or in the evening/weekend at (703) 527-8730. For more information on eminent domain abuse, visit www.ij.org or www.castlecoalition.org.]