On Thursday of last week, the California Supreme Court in the case Property Reserve, Inc. v. Superior Court of San Joaquin County ruled that government officials don’t need to go through a formal eminent domain process before they can survey private property. This decision reverses the ruling made by the Court of Appeal, which concluded that in order to undertake geological surveys, the state must first condemn and pay for the property through eminent domain procedures.  The Supreme Court’s ruling effectively restores the way things used to work in California: just as they could for years before the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the Property Reserve case, public agencies can once again obtain access to properties for initial studies and surveys by filing only a Petition with the Court seeking entry.  A full blown eminent domain action is no longer required to obtain entry for initial studies and surveys.


The decision by the Supreme Court is a blow for Delta landowners, as well as numerous other property owners throughout the State of California. After years of back-and-forth legal struggle between Delta farmers and the state Department of Water Resources, surveys for the $15 billion twin tunnel project can move forward.


The proposed surveys in the Delta Tunnels project involve activities such as drilling holes more than 200 feet deep and 8-inches in diameter to examine the soil, taking photographs, and looking for animals. The Supreme Court found that the proposed surveys are consistent with state law, which allows public agencies to perform an initial examination before proceeding with eminent domain.


The Delta farmers, who oppose the project, objected to the state’s effort to access their land. “We wanted to delay things, and we certainly did that for much longer than we actually anticipated,” Zuckerman said, as quoted in an article on Record Net. “We still believe what the state was asking for was draconian and very invasive, and when they do come on (the property) we’re going to be very attuned to how they conduct themselves.”


Had the court ruled in favor of the Delta farmers, it would have become vastly more time consuming and expensive for any agency to acquire land for any project in California. “We’re obviously pleased with the Court’s decision, which validates the procedures we’ve been using,” Water Resources spokesman Ted Thomas said, as quoted in an article by Record Net. “We will continue moving forward with our work to modernize California’s water infrastructure to better protect the Delta ecosystem and water supplies.”


There are two important caveats that came out of the ruling. First, property owners now have the right for a jury to decide how much compensation they should receive for initial surveys. Second, although damage isn’t intended, should it occur, property owners are entitled under the law to recover for any damages caused by the survey.


Thursday’s decision was the second piece of recent bad news for Delta interests. Last week, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California officially took ownership of 20,000 acres of Delta farmland.


We will continue to follow the Delta Tunnel project. If you are a property or business owner that might be affected by the proposed project or other projects in the State of California, you can learn more by giving us a call at 866-EM-DOMAIN.