"Blight" In the Desert

California City, population 10,000, really is the size of a city, stretching across 203 square miles of the Mojave Desert, an area larger in size than Denver or New Orleans. Empty desert dotted with sagebrush doesn’t seem like it could fall under anyone’s definition of “blight,” but that’s exactly how the city of California City defined it in 2003 to make way for a Hyundai test track, showing how ridiculously broad California’s redevelopment laws are.

In 2002, Hyundai approached the city about developing a test track on vacant desert land the city would actually have to annex in order to give to the carmaker. By the end of the year, a consulting firm determined that 26 square miles of land was blighted according to California law because it was “characterized by lots of irregular form and shape and/or inadequate size…and [by] lots that are not accessible [from public roads].”[1]

City officials were very creative with their interpretation of the law. These plots were in those irregular shapes called squares and rectangles. Most plots were 2.5 acres, but some were as big as 640 acres – clearly large enough for any type of development. The city defined “irregular” and “inadequate” plots of land to be those that couldn’t be accessed by a public road, even though the law’s definition of blight deals with the shape and size of land already developed.

In 2003, the city decided to use its power of eminent domain to obtain the land from 202 property owners based on its odd interpretation of blight. The city valued the land at $1,000 an acre, and many owners sold or settled with the city.[2] Five property owners, however, refused to sell or negotiate with the city. They filed suit against California City, challenging the city’s condemnation of their “urbanized” and “blighted” land.

June Ailin, a lawyer for one of the landowners stated the obvious: “The law was not intended to deal with large, vacant rural areas…. This area is not urbanized. It’s not blighted.”[3]

Nevertheless, in 2005, the superior court in Bakersfield ruled in favor of the city. It thought there was enough evidence to describe the land as “irregular” in form and shape and “inadequate” size for development.[4] The property owners appealed.

Luckily for the property owners, they found government officials able to interpret the plain language of the law. The Attorney General of California filed an amicus brief with the appellate court on their behalf arguing that California City had abused the state’s development law when it “designated thousands of acres of bare, undeveloped land in the middle of the desert as blighted.”[5]

Recently, the California Court of Appeal found that the California City Redevelopment agency had made an “erroneously broad interpretation” of the state’s “blight” law by using a definition that did not “reflect the usual and ordinary meanings of the words” in the law.[6]

The city of California City does not plan on letting the “usual and ordinary meanings” of words stand in their way, however. They have appealed to the California Supreme Court, no doubt hoping the justices in the state’s high court will find their new definition of “blight” acceptable.

If California’s definition of blight holds up to the court’s scrutiny, it could be the largest expansion of a word’s definition since the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the definition of “public use” in its Kelo decision to mean essentially “public benefit.” But no matter the judgment, the case in California City demonstrates the vulnerability of private property in the United States, even if that property is in the pristine wilderness of an empty desert, as well as the length to which some local officials will go for increased tax revenue.

[1] Quoted in Neilson v. City of California City, 53 Cal Rptr. 3d 143, 146 Cal. App 4th 633 (Cal. Ct. App. 2007).

[2] Rachana Rathi, “Landowners Get Help from State in Kern County Dispute…” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2005.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] N.L. Neilson v. City of California et al.

[5] Quoted in ibid.

[6] Ibid.