Guest View: Eminent-domain propositions on the ballot require careful scrutiny
There has been no more active debate than on the issue of redevelopment in our lakeside community. While everyone seems to have an opinion, let’s set that aside for the moment and look at Propositions 98 and 99 on Tuesday’s ballot.
The origins of eminent domain go back to the beginning of governments, with its need to acquire property for public projects. The federal Constitution and the California Constitution provide that a fair compensation must be paid, along with expenses of moving and relocation.
My own introduction was first realized as a student of economics at the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive project designed to prevent serious flooding and loss of life in the Tennessee Valley and to turn the disastrous overflowing rivers into rural electric projects through construction of dams.
The land had been in the hands of poor farmers for four generations. The need to move them off the land was measured against the cost of loss of life and damage from uncontrollable floods and the need to bring modern electricity to the area.
It was not an easy decision to move people, as many of the stories were heartbreaking. Most would argue today that the project was not only necessary, but also worth it. As a young college student, it brought me directly in contact with one of the basic concepts and struggles of democracy, the right of the majority and the protection of the minority.
And that brings us to Tuesday’s vote: Both initiatives would amend the current eminent-domain provisions of the California Constitution. Both are alleged to address the issues highlighted in the recent Supreme Court decision of Kelo vs. New London.
In that case, the court ruled that acquisition of a private house by eminent domain for economic development purposes was a public use. The requirements to qualify in that case included decades of economic decline, high unemployment and a continuing dialogue with the public on alternative plans for the area.
The court noted that states may place further limits on acquisition, such as in California, which in addition requires a finding of blight.
Proposition 98, sponsored by the Howard Jarvis property owners, provides that private property may “not be taken” or damaged for “private use.”
“Taken” is defined to include transfers of ownership, occupancy or use of property from a private owner to a public agency or to any person or entity other than a public agency, or limiting the price a private owner may charge another person to purchase, occupy or use his or her real property.
It would prevent the public entity from transferring property acquired by eminent domain to a private party, and it would prevent new rent controls and would phase out existing rent controls.
Elimination of rent controls is seen as the downfall of the measure.
There are more than 110 communities in California that have such rent controls. Restricting transfer to a private party for a public purpose is opposed by communities that see the advantage of having projects funded and carried out by private developers as the only way to get projects funded.
Under restrictions of Proposition 13, cities do not have the funds to construct the most-needed public projects, such as city halls, roads and fire stations. Under current rules, cities can make the cost of public facilities by the private developer a requirement for approval of private projects.
The other ballot measure is Proposition 99, sponsored by the League of California Cities and others. It prohibits public entities from acquiring “owner-occupied” single-family homes and transferring the interest to a private person for development.
There are qualifying provisions, such as a minimum of one-year ownership before the offer to purchase, and the property must be owner-occupied. It attempts to address the effects of the backlash from the Kelo decision.
From my view, this is the best alternative of the two propositions. It provides protection to the homeowner while not requiring sweeping costs to government for zoning and other regulation.
Both of these measures will have long-term effects on cities, so read the content of the measures, ask questions and, above all, be sure to vote.
– Ted Long is a member of the South Lake Tahoe City Council.
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