Despite 2006 Reforms, New Report Demonstrates California Desperately Needs Eminent Domain Reform

John Kramer
John Kramer · October 1, 2008

Arlington, Va.—“With more than 700 redevelopment areas, hundreds of documented abuses of eminent domain since 2001, and tens of thousands of properties threatened by eminent domain, California is one of the states most in need of real eminent domain reform,” declares the latest report from the Institute for Justice, California Scheming: What Every Californian Should Know About Eminent Domain.

Since the Kelo eminent domain case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Castle Coalition, a grassroots project of the Institute for Justice, has tracked eminent domain and redevelopment laws nationwide as well as the thousands of properties that have been threatened or condemned through eminent domain for private development. This latest report, California Scheming, summarizes the California legal history and areas of contention within the state’s eminent domain laws. The report also collects and summarizes previous reports and studies available on the issue of eminent domain in California.

“Not only is California one of the biggest abusers of eminent domain in the nation, its redevelopment laws and procedures are designed almost entirely to favor local officials and developers over property owners,” said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition. “In order to challenge an infrastructure that funnels billions of tax dollars into redevelopment authorities, it is important for California residents to know the exact way in which state law allows them to confront this powerful development machine.”

“Our goal with this report is to provide a one-stop-shopping resource for anyone who wants to understand the current state of play when it comes to eminent domain in California,” said Chris Grodecki, the report’s author. “As things stand now, only developers, central planners and their political allies are in favor of eminent domain for private gain. Everyone else in the state—including the vast majority of small property owners and voters of all political persuasions—opposes this abuse of government power.”

The report details the process by which local municipalities can declare hundreds of acres of perfectly well-maintained property “blighted,” a condition necessary to use eminent domain in the state. California’s guidelines for declaring ‘blight’ are so vague, the report demonstrates, that every property in California is potentially at risk. The report also details the complex procedure state law requires property owners to follow in order to protect their homes and small businesses from being seized for private economic development.

In order to further aid property owners, the report also examines the few successful attempts to protect property rights in the state. Throughout California, in only five cities were residents able to prevent the abuse of eminent domain since the Kelo ruling. Additionally, only eight municipalities passed meaningful reform measures that put limits on local officials’ ability to abuse eminent domain for private development. Despite disappointing reform measures and the continued abuse of eminent domain, California has a few bright spots that can help lead not only to future reform but also to a new perspective on the concept of urban redevelopment.

The report is available here.