By Steve Lawrence


SACRAMENTO—The debate over how much to restrict government’s use of its eminent domain powers to obtain private property for shopping malls and other developments resumes this week in the state Assembly.

The Judiciary Committee will consider rival constitutional amendments on Tuesday, one by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, and the other by Assemblywoman Mimi Walters, R-Mission Viejo.

The Walters legislation would, with a couple of exceptions, allow government agencies to use eminent domain to buy private property only for public projects.

The exemptions cover property for use by utilities and for redevelopment projects to promote economic development near closed military bases in San Bernardino County.

De La Torre’s proposal would ban use of eminent domain proceedings to acquire owner-occupied homes for private developments.

It also would prohibit using eminent domain to transfer property owned by small businesses—those with no more than 25 full-time employees—to other private owners unless it was part of a comprehensive program to eliminate blight.

Small business owners could avoid selling their property through eminent domain proceedings by agreeing to make improvements as part of the blight-elimination project. Or they could receive compensation to cover a move to a different location.

Both measures are a response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of the city New London,
Conn., to use its eminent domain powers to force the sale of homes for a redevelopment project.

But the ruling also allowed several states to pass laws limiting eminent domain for nonpublic uses.

The De La Torre amendment is supported by a number of groups that opposed Proposition 90, an unsuccessful 2006 California ballot measure that attempted to impose broad limits on the use of eminent domain.

Those Proposition 90 opponents describe the De La Torre legislation as a “carefully crafted compromise.”

“We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel,” De La Torre said. “We’re trying to keep this as simple as possible to address the issue at hand and not bring in extraneous issues.

“This is tailored to the main concern of people, which is protection of their owner-occupied homes and extending some protections to small business, as well.”

But opponents complain the De La Torre legislation would not protect farms, churches, rental housing, second homes, investment property and businesses with more than 25 employees, although De La Torre said he is trying draft language to protect churches.

The critics also contend that the protections De La Torre’s legislation would provide small businesses would be undercut by a vague definition of blight.

“There are so many loopholes and exceptions. At the end of the day, it provides meaningless reform,” said Marko Mlikotin, president of the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights, which is trying to put an initiative similar to Walters’ legislation on the June 2008 ballot.

Walters could not be reached for comment.

San Jose CA Mercury News: