By Dave Downey

A proposed amendment to the state constitution that would bar cities and counties from condemning homes, churches or small businesses so they could be bulldozed to pave the way for private development is headed for a key vote.

The state Assembly is expected to take up the bill, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, early next week. If it passes, it will go to the Senate as lawmakers scramble to wrap up their 2007 session by the middle of the month.

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to sign the legislation, the measure would appear on the state ballot next year — in either February, June or November — as a constitutional amendment.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, the legislation is a reaction to the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London. That 5-4 ruling said the city of New London, Conn., was within its rights in forcing Susette Kelo and her neighbors to sell their modest waterfront homes to make way for a hotel-condominium project that promised to fill city coffers with tax dollars.

The legislation aims to stop any California city from exercising its power of eminent domain to make way for a similar project or shopping center. Eminent domain is a court process through which a government agency can force unwilling property owners to sell their land at its appraised value.

As originally written, the legislation targeted residential properties and businesses that employ 25 or fewer people. A provision added late last week sought to protect churches from such land grabs, too.

It was a good idea to include houses of worship, said Rev. Jonathan Maxey, pastor of Grace of Temecula Valley AME Church on Diaz Road, near Rancho California Road.

“A lot of local governments are opposed to churches, especially when they move in to commercial areas because they don’t provide the tax base that businesses do,” Maxey said.

He said the legislation would prevent cities and counties from replacing churches with stores.

“Also, it would reinforce the autonomy of churches and the leaders within the churches, to be able to oppose a county or civil government on an issue without fear of this being used against them as a tool of retribution,” he said.

Cities and counties throughout the country long have held the power to condemn private property for publicly owned roads and parks. But over the decades, that power has expanded to private redevelopment projects deemed in the interest of the community.

In California, the green light can be given for such projects if a property is defined as “blighted.” And the bar for making such a determination is low. Any of several conditions, such as a property’s use being incompatible with a use next door, can trigger a finding of blight.

Southwest County officials said eminent domain power should not be used that way.

“It should only be used for public projects — road improvements, infrastructure, things of that nature — and then only after the property owner is provided fair market value for his property,” said Lake Elsinore Mayor Bob Magee. “I believe that a man’s home is his castle. And to have a government entity step in and take his property and give it to another entity for a for-profit enterprise is just wrong.”

In response to a question, Magee said it would not be a mistake to put into effect a blanket ban that barred condemnation even when properties were truly blighted. He said that, even in those cases, families get thrown out on the street.

“You haven’t made their problem better, you’ve made their problem worse,” he said. “Now, they’re scrambling for a place to live.”

Magee said the best way to spruce up run-down neighborhoods is to spend money patching streets, sidewalks and public landscaping and to offer financial incentives for homeowners to fix up properties.

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said it also helps to enforce local building codes, so properties don’t deteriorate to the point that they are unsafe.

Buster said the whole idea of exercising eminent domain for development is misguided.

“We’re hitting one property owner and just rewarding one other private entity,” he said.

At the same time, Buster and Magee said they have not endorsed the legislation, as they are unclear about the breadth of its effect. They said they remember all too well Proposition 90, last year’s failed initiative that sought to neutralize the Supreme Court decision’s impact on California but also to curb local land-use planning authority.

Murrieta Mayor Doug McAllister, who opposes the bill, said he worries that it might lead to follow-up measures that take away cities’ authority to condemn private property for widening roads.

“I have to assume that there is an agenda beyond the bill,” McAllister said.

The mayor said the legislation is unnecessary.

“It tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in California,” McAllister said. “I’d be willing to bet that that (the condemnation of private property for a private development) will never happen in Murrieta.”

However, something did happen in Murrieta in 2004 that spurred cries of abuse.

As it prepared to widen Jefferson Avenue to four lanes between Murrieta Hot Springs Road and Juniper Street, the city initially offered nothing for a half dozen properties required for the project. Later, following an outcry, the city offered the owners a total of $684,000.

Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for Californians for Eminent Domain Reform, a statewide coalition of business, homeowner and labor groups that backs the bill, said the goal is to “protect people from eminent domain abuse.” Fairbanks said no one has raised the specter of curbing condemnation power for roads or parks.

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