Major California Property Rights Victory for Landowners in Eminent Domain Abuse Fight; National City Violated Federal Constitution and State Laws
National City, Calif.—A California gym that mentors at-risk kids scored a knockout legal blow against eminent domain abuse in California. Yesterday, April 21, Judge Steven R. Denton of the Superior Court of California ruled in favor of the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) and against National City, Calif., in one of the most important property rights cases in the nation. Carlos Barragan, Jr., who along with his father created the CYAC as a means of keeping local at-risk kids out of gangs, will join with other CYAC leaders at the gym at 10:30 a.m. California time to discuss the ruling with the media. The gym is located at 1018 National City Blvd., National City, Calif.
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.
“After Kelo, the California Legislature limited a city’s ability to declare ‘blight’ based on trivial things like ‘lack of parking’ and required real evidence and documentation from redevelopment agencies,” said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the CYAC for free. “National City completely ignored the new law when it decided to threaten the CYAC and nearly 700 other properties with eminent domain for private development. The Court’s decision holds that the new law placed real restrictions on redevelopment agencies and that National City violated the law. This is the very first case interpreting the changes to the law that went into effect on January 1, 2007, in response to the Kelo decision.”
Berliner said, “This decision will go a long way in protecting Californians throughout the state against eminent domain abuse.”
Clemente Casillas, the CYAC President, said, “I hope National City does the right thing now and throws in the towel so we can get back to focusing all our attention on helping to grow the kids in our community. The city can have redevelopment, but that has to be done through private negotiation, not by government force.”
IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes said, “Redevelopment agencies always use private consultants to come up with blight studies. The Court ruled that the documents and data produced by those consultants are public records, just like government-produced documents. That ruling will help everyone trying to fight a blight designation of their neighborhood, and it will also help the media and anyone else trying to get more information about government projects. We’ve been saying for years that the city’s blight study lacked any information the CYAC needed to do a meaningful review. The court agreed, saying it was mostly jargon and that the city should have given the CYAC more time and continued the public hearing when the CYAC requested it.”
California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed eliminating local redevelopment agencies across the state. These agencies, which are run by the cities they reside in, have taken properties they didn’t own only to hand that land over to those with more political power. They have driven city after city in California to the brink of bankruptcy, often for nothing more than private gain.
“National City has been labeling this area blighted since the 1960s,” said Rowes. “This decision provides another example of a redevelopment agency that is out of control and should be abolished.”
The CYAC got almost everything it asked for in this lawsuit. The Court invalidated the city’s redevelopment plan amendment that authorized eminent domain, declared that the city violated the Public Records Act, declared that the city violated the CYAC’s due process rights, and gave the CYAC nominal damages. The CYAC is finally free from the threat of eminent domain for the first time in nearly four years.
Richard M. Segal, Brian D. Martin and Nathan R. Smith from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in San Diego, acting as pro bono local counsel, put in extraordinary time and effort on the case.