In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the authority of local governments to use eminent domain to improve communities (Kelo v. New London), it is important to note that California already has strong laws protecting property owners and restricting the use of eminent domain, which is the practice of government agencies forcing the sale of property at fair market value. California’s redevelopment agencies use this option as a last resort and only in extreme cases in which local government clearly states the public purpose of the action based on the removal of blight.
The recently proposed measures to further restrict the use of eminent domain could have severe and unintended consequences on efforts to revitalize communities, create jobs, build affordable housing and eradicate blight in neighborhoods most in need.
Oak Park has several prime examples of how eminent domain was used for community revitalization. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) used eminent domain to acquire two notorious liquor stores and make way for better uses. Extremely high calls for police service and loitering around the stores’ premises discouraged any positive investment. Community leaders and the city council strongly supported our efforts, and the action was taken after exhausting all other alternatives to negotiate the purchases with the property owners. Both owners were paid fair market value as determined by an independent appraiser.
Both sites now support vibrant businesses and gathering places that benefit all residents. One parcel is a parking lot that accommodates growing economic investment, including a commercial complex with a bookstore, barbershop, coffee shop and 12 affordable apartments. The other site is part of a thriving retail center that includes the Food Source grocery store, Walgreens and Hollywood Video, bringing jobs and quality services to the neighborhood.
In response to strong urging from the community, SHRA is exploring the opportunity to acquire two additional stores, with the hope of building single-family homes in their place. We will do all we can to negotiate voluntary purchases at a fair price, but we may not be successful.
Should we give up and leave the neighboring residents to deal with what they say is an intolerable situation, or, as a last resort, should we consider the use of eminent domain? We believe eminent domain should be preserved as an important tool to use when local government has exhausted every other alternative to build safe, livable and thriving communities.