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Prop. 90: Limiting the Powers of Eminent Domain

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Aired 4/19/09

Proposition 90 on the state ballot asks voters to limit the power of governments to seize land from private owners. Supporters of Prop. 90 say Californians need protection from eminent domain abuse. Critics of the ballot measure say it will cost too much money and will hamper public works projects. KPBS Reporter Ed Joyce has more on Proposition 90.

Voters in California and 11 other states are considering property rights measures on next month’s ballot. National efforts to limit the powers of eminent domain gained momentum last year. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut city could seize homes and turn the land over to a private developer for a retail-hotel-condo project. California Republican Assemblyman Ray Haynes represents Western Riverside and Northern San Diego Counties. He disagrees with the Supreme Court decision. 

Haynes: I believed that decision is wrong. And I believe the state of California needs to enact protections of private property so that the governments can’t do that sort of thing and that’s what we’re trying to do with Prop 90.

If passed by voters, the measure would prevent cities from using eminent-domain powers to seize land and transfer the property to a new owner – such as a shopping mall developer. Haynes says Prop. 90 would narrow the types of properties a city could acquire using eminent domain. 

Haynes: Under Prop 90 cities can still step in and take blighted land but it has to be the specific property that’s blighted not the neighborhood. And I think that’s the right thing, I mean a city should not be able to condemn your land because you got bad neighbors and right now under California law they can do that. 

Prop. 90 exempts eminent domain actions taken for public uses, such as highways, hospitals or fire departments.

In downtown San Diego two years ago, the city voted to force Ahmed Mesdaq and his Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee Lounge from his downtown property, so that a developer could build a hotel on the site. Mesdaq refused to sell for $3 million and sued the city. Mesdaq’s attorney Vincent Bartolotta Junior, says a judge awarded Mesdaq $8 million.

Bartolotta: This was an abuse of power. And that’s what Proposition 90’s about. That’s what all the furor across the country is about – the abuse. Nobody argues, not even Mr. Mesdaq argues with the idea that eminent domain has a useful purpose. It’s just that when it’s abused that everyone’s upset. 

The city is appealing the decision. It’s the type of abuse supporters say Prop. 90 is designed to prevent. But some government officials say passing Prop. 90 could cause some public works projects to grind to a halt or become too expensive. Prop. 90 opponents include the League of California Cities, environmental preservation groups and most government entities.

San Diego Association of Governments or SANDAG spokesman Gary Bonelli.

Bonelli: We think it’s going to cost the taxpayers a lot more money in the long run. 

The state legislative analyst says the measure appears to increase the cost governments must pay when it takes property. That’s what worries Bonelli. 

Bonelli: We want a balance, we want to make sure property rights are preserved. But at the same time like when we’re expanding say Highway 805 in the South Bay or widening I-15 in the I-15 corridor, there’s a lot of land involved, there’s a lot of adjacent properties, and with Proposition 90, it might get a little bit out of hand where you can, you get it so litigated. It becomes so costly you can’t provide public infrastructure.

Bonelli says SANDAG understands the need to protect private property owners from losing their property to private developers, but Prop. 90 isn’t the answer.

Bonelli: It’s ballot box legislation. The only people that win in this are the attorneys that will be litigating it for a long time. 

The measure has made for some strange bedfellows – with the Sierra Club joining the California Chamber of Commerce in opposing Prop. 90. Support and opposition also crosses political party lines, with Republicans and Democrats on either side of the initiative. Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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