For decades California local elected officials have enjoyed a delicious privilege. Under existing California law they can use eminent domain to seize private property and turn it over to other private interests like shopping mall developers. This is why these officials were rocked back on their heels when legislation that would have enshrined this privilege in the state constitution was defeated in the legislative session just ended. This defeat by those who seize property for illegitimate purposes has thankfully opened the door for a citizens’ initiative that would give California real property rights reform.
Officials had thought they were home free in 2005 when the United States Supreme Court concluded government could take private property not just for traditional government uses like roads and schools but to turn over to private interests. The only limitation said the Court is that officials must show there is "public purpose." The Court went on to conclude that "public purpose" could be almost anything that a government declares including increasing tax revenues. In California the only additional requirement is that the property be declared "blighted" but this presents no significant obstacle — in one community a golf course was declared blighted for the purpose of redevelopment.
Needless to say local elected officials jealously guard their perquisite. After all when soliciting campaign funds having power over property can be very advantageous. What better way to show gratitude to a major contributor than by rewarding them with the opportunity to develop a piece of prime real estate?
So when last spring property rights advocates began a serious effort to reform California law to prevent eminent domain abuse the politicians saw this as a serious threat. When those defending property rights began collecting signatures to qualify the California Property Owners & Farmland Protection Act (CPOFPA) for the ballot officials countered by using their membership in the League of California Cities to rally behind a bill Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 that would have provided cosmetic reform but in reality preserved most of their existing ability to take property. A major newspaper editorialized that the League of Cities’ bill was actually "worse than doing nothing."
The property takers pulled out all the stops including flooding the Capitol with arm-twisting lobbyists to gain passage of the Leagues’ bill. If they could convince the Legislature to pass their pet legislation which would place their version of eminent domain "reform" before voters they hoped to confuse the issue and defeat the CPOFPA. And if they could muddy the waters to the extent that both measures failed so much the better because their property taking privileges would continue unabated.
When the League’s legislation was defeated the property grabbers moved on to plan "B." They have begun to collect signatures to place their own proposition on the ballot that would pose as eminent domain reform but would exempt homes occupied for less than one year businesses churches and farmland. These properties would all be protected by the CPOFPA.
For those who believe that eminent domain should be reserved for legitimate government purposes like roads schools and fire stations and limiting the taking of property for private use then the California Property Owners & Farmland Protection Act is the real deal.
A coalition led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights is over half way to collecting the signatures necessary to put genuine eminent domain reform including iron clad protections for homeowners on the June ballot.
The greatest challenge for those who would protect their homes and property from seizure will be to blunt efforts by those who are trying to deceive the public lest voters become so confused they end up rejecting real reform.
Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.