By Dan Walters

California voters will weigh in next year on “eminent domain,” the quaintly named procedure by which governments seize private property for ostensibly public purposes, and a preview of the forthcoming battle was staged in the Capitol on Thursday.

Two Senate committees met back-to-back in the same room and approved a bill that’s part of a drive by local governments to change eminent domain rules just enough to stave off a more far-reaching overhaul by property rights groups.

The measure, Assembly Bill 887, had been defeated in the Senate Local Government Committee on Wednesday as Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, joined Republicans in opposition. But after some parliamentary maneuvers, the committee reconvened on Thursday and Machado switched sides, sending the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which met minutes later and approved it. Machado said he had been given assurances that some provisions would be altered.

Republicans fumed that procedural rules were bent or broken to give the bill a second chance in Local Government. “It is not proper for the committee to hear the bill,” Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, complained, adding, “The public has been completely eliminated from participation.”

AB 887, carried by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, would provide businesses displaced by property seizures with some additional safeguards and compensation and is a companion to a constitutional amendment that would prohibit residential property from being seized and then resold or given to another private party.

The constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote to make it to the ballot, and is unlikely to pass because Republicans are opposed. But its sponsors — local governments and environmental groups, mostly — are circulating a similar initiative that would appear on the ballot if sufficient signatures are gathered. Opponents of eminent domain, meanwhile, are planning their own ballot measure to outlaw the seizure of private property for anything other than purely public purposes, such as roads and schools.

The maneuvering stems from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that private property could be seized for a private development as part of a redevelopment plan, touching off a firestorm of criticism from property rights groups. Last year, California voters rejected a ballot measure (Proposition 90) that would have prohibited such seizures, but also required governments to give property owners compensation for what was called “regulatory taking,” such as downzoning property.

Advocates of that measure are back with a new proposal that doesn’t include the regulatory takings language, at least not directly, and local officials are clearly concerned that it could pass, thus putting a crimp in their commercial redevelopment plans. They have, therefore, written their alternative measure that protects residential property from seizure and the De La Torre bill to provide additional protections to commercial property, though it stops short of prohibiting seizure.

That omission drew some pointed criticism in the Local Government Committee staff analysis. In a passage headed “fig leaves,” committee consultant Peter Detwiler wrote: “Why should a redevelopment agency take private property from one owner in order to sell it to another private party?” adding, “It’s one thing for a government agency to take private property for a public works project like widening a highway or building a fire station. It’s entirely different when public officials use their eminent domain powers to take a house or small business and turn over the property to a developer for a new shopping center. Where’s the public use?”

That’s the question that California voters will face next year.

The Sacramento Bee: