- As part of California’s effort to reduce their budget deficit, redevelopment agencies—the primary abusers of eminent domain—were abolished
- Attempts at substantial reform have failed, while passed reform measures leave plenty of loopholes for continued abuse
In an effort to close the state’s $25 billion budget deficit in 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two bills: Assembly Bill 1X 26, which dissolved redevelopment agencies, and Assembly Bill 1X 27, which exempted agencies that agreed to make payments into funds benefiting the state’s schools and special districts. The California Redevelopment Association and the League of California Cities, among others, challenged both laws, arguing that they violated the California Constitution.
The court held that AB 1X 26, the law barring the agencies from engaging in new business and providing for their windup and dissolution, was “a proper exercise of the legislative power vested in the Legislature by the state Constitution.” The court concluded that the Legislature has both the power to create such agencies “and the corollary power to dissolve those same entities when the Legislature deems it necessary and proper.” In contrast, the court concluded that AB 1X 27, which allowed the agencies to continue to exist if they made certain payments, violated a provision of the California Constitution that prohibits the Legislature from requiring payments from redevelopment agencies to the state.
Although the use of eminent domain was not directly addressed by the Legislature, the court’s decision represented a win for property rights because the main agencies responsible for abusing eminent domain are no more.
This legislation was preceded by efforts in 2008 and 2006 to reform eminent domain laws in the wake of Kelo. Unfortunately for property owners in the Golden State, these bills did little to enhance protections for private property owners. This means that if redevelopment agencies are erected ever again, property owners will again be under threat from tax-hungry government officials and land-hungry developers.
The five eminent domain bills signed into law in 2006 were basically a waste of paper. In a state where thousands of properties have been threatened and/or condemned in the last decade, these bills scarcely hindered the rampant abuse of eminent domain. Senate Bills 53, 1206, 1210, 1650, and 1809 created a few additional procedural hoops for condemning authorities to jump through, such as requiring more details about the proposed use of the targeted property and additional findings of blight when renewing a blight designation. These bills are mostly cosmetic and do not prevent determined officials from taking private property for another private party’s benefit.
Senate Bill 1206 came the closest to substantive reform by trying to address California’s broad definition of blight, but it failed to make any significant changes. The state’s redevelopment statutes still leave almost any property at risk of condemnation. If Californians’ properties are truly going to be protected, the Legislature must ensure that properties may be taken only if they are an immediate threat to public health and safety, and that this assessment must be made on a property-by-property basis.
In November 2006, Californians considered Proposition 90, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would have addressed property rights protections in the state constitution. Unfortunately, even that proposed amendment lacked the strong public use language necessary to ensure the security of homes, businesses, farms, and houses of worship. Probably because of a highly controversial provision on regulatory takings, the measure narrowly failed.
In June 2008, Californians considered two rival ballot measures, Proposition 98 and Proposition 99, both proposed constitutional amendments, and they approved the latter. Proposition 98 would have prohibited all private property from being taken for private use, thereby offering broad protections to Californians. However, the measure also included language that opponents claimed would have phased out rent control. Sponsored by the League of California Cities—the beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse—Proposition 99 provides protection for “owner-occupied residences” but specifically exclude all small business owners, all renters, and even all new homeowners if they have lived in their residences for less than a year. Even if a majority of voters had voted in favor of Proposition 98, Proposition 99 contained a provision that would have nullified any other attempts to amend that part of the state constitution.