Eminent revolt

Group threatens a ballot measure to curb City Hall’s redevelopment power

Justice league: Harvey Zall and his property-rights crusaders may ask voters to blunt the city’s power of eminent domain.

Justice league: Harvey Zall and his property-rights crusaders may ask voters to blunt the city’s power of eminent domain.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Attention Moe Mohanna: City officials might take your land, but Sacramento voters might take their power.

Eminent domain—a city’s power to seize private property through compulsory purchases for public use—has become, for one group of local citizens, a hard-to-swallow part of the city’s charter. Mohanna, a real-estate mogul who owns handfuls of property in Sacramento’s downtown district, has become the target of a redevelopment push by the Sacramento City Council. City officials have threatened to seize Mohanna’s dilapidated properties and remake them into the jewel of a re-envisioned K Street Mall. The move most likely would mean selling Mohanna’s property to another private party for commercial development.

Mohanna, an Iranian who immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago, calls the move “un-American.”

Enter the Sacramento Citizens for Property Justice. The group has already threatened a lawsuit over closed-door meetings of city officials about the K Street properties—saying the process encourages backroom deals and favoritism.

Now, the group is pushing for a change to the city’s charter—to prohibit the city from taking private property and giving it to another private business interest for development.

According to Harvey Zall, spokesman for the Sacramento Citizens for Property Justice, the group wants to put forth a ballot item as early as March 2006. Still in its infancy, the organization has yet to collect one signature in support of the initiative. Nevertheless, Zall said he was “confident” that money would materialize to support the initiative.

“Right now, we are meeting with consultants. We are talking about what we need to do, how much money it would take, and can we do it,” Zall said. “If we can do it in Sacramento, we can do it anywhere in California.”

Although the group is still relatively small, Zall hopes the recent political fervor around eminent domain (nationally, as a result of the recent Kelo v. City of New London decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and locally, due to Sacramento’s redevelopment plans for K Street) will swell its chorus of supporters.

“We are searching for the widest possible support,” Zall said. “I think it’s doable to get conservatives, moderates and liberals who support this.”

And yet, with but a few recognizable supporters (like former Loaves & Fishes director LeRoy Chatfield; the charity is in the middle of a major redevelopment area), the Sacramento Citizens for Property Justice claim to have enough of a coalition to push forward an initiative to change the city’s charter.

As it stands, the city’s use of eminent domain is under the broad determination of taking land for “public use.” This provision (authorized by the U.S. and California Constitutions and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) allows Sacramento to seize property to build roads, hospitals, police stations—the infrastructure a city needs to operate. The charter amendment proposed by the Sacramento Citizens for Property Justice would limit the city’s use of eminent domain when concerning “economic development.” Zall said the move would protect the rights of landowners.

Sacramento wouldn’t be the first city to restrict officials’ powers of eminent domain. The citizens of Carrollton, Texas, amended their city’s charter in 1998 with provisions that mirror those advocated by the Sacramento Citizens for Property Justice. Carrollton residents campaigned heavily to change their city’s charter after the city council of neighboring Hurst, Texas, used eminent domain to acquire local homes and sold the property to a private developer to build a shopping mall.

According to Clayton Hutchins, city attorney for Carrollton, City Hall still has considerable power to take and develop property.

“I still take the position we can [use eminent domain] for economic development,” said Hutchins, adding that the new charter still allows the city to seize property for community development as long as ownership of that land remains in the hands of a governmental agency. “But that language tends to make our citizens happy.”

And Sacramento’s deputy city attorney, Richard E. Archibald, says a charter amendment would not by itself achieve the limits on government power that Zall’s group is after—a modification to the state’s constitution would be needed, as well. It’s a prospect Zall has not discounted—especially since State Senator Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, announced his intentions for a new amendment to the California Constitution.

In a release issued through his Web site, McClintock said 6,000 state agencies have the ability to seize a homeowner’s property. His amendment, called the Homeowner and Property Protection Act, is under consideration in the Legislature now.

“It used to be that if a widow didn’t want to sell her home to a developer, she didn’t have to. That was the end of the matter, unless the developer sent in a bunch of thugs to beat her up,” wrote McClintock, also a candidate for state lieutenant governor in 2006. “And, of course, government was there to protect her from the thugs. Now government has become the thug.”

Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington have enacted statutes similar to McClintock’s since the mid-1990s.

Zall hopes that, whether through his group’s amendment or that of McClintock, a resolution will pass that protects the rights of property owners and the city.

“I’d like to see accountability in government, and I’m convinced that sometimes our public servants, although I wonder if they really regard themselves as our servants … would have to think twice about what they’re doing when it comes to [eminent domain] and all things,” Zall said. “We hope that we might be part of a larger movement, and if it happens on the state level … I think it would prevent the sort of things we object to in the city of Sacramento and the state.”