Eminent domain may be a bit less imminent

By ROBYN BLUMNER, Times Columnist
Published August 19, 2007

The jig is up on eminent domain.

It used to be that local governments and redevelopment agencies could steamroll property owners into selling their homes and businesses, so they could be handed off to big developers. The threat was always implicit: If you don't sell voluntarily, we'll use our powers of condemnation to force it from your hands.

The alliance worked well for the powerful interests - developers could pull together large parcels while bypassing the marketplace and local governments could get a boost in tax revenues from whatever got built. The original property owners were nearly always powerless to object.

But no more. Now there is pushback. Thanks in large part to a national campaign launched by the nonprofit Institute for Justice, property owners have a powerful, knowledgeable ally. In many places, the group has helped secure for homeowners and small business owners precisely those property rights that we all thought we had to begin with.

Its latest effort is to help Carlos Barragan and his son, Carlos Jr., who together started the Community Youth Athletic Center for at-risk kids in National City, Calif., a community that sits about 15 minutes north of the Mexican border. They are up against the city and developer Jim Beauchamp, who had plans to build a high-rise, mixed-use condo project right on the spot where the Barragans' CYAC sits.

Sixteen years ago the Barragans started to give free boxing lessons in their back yard to young men after school so they'd have a place to go rather than the streets. The program got so big and so successful in turning around troubled youths that it needed larger quarters. In 2001, with the help of private donations, volunteers and city support, the Barragans bought a single-story building and renovated it. The facility has a boxing ring, showers and computer stations for the tutoring that is offered. Its programs have done a remarkable job in getting local teens to stay in high school and out of jail.

Even National City's mayor, Ron Morrison, who has been fighting the CYAC board, agrees that the gym along with its volunteer tutors and mentors have probably helped hundreds of young people over the years.

But that didn't stop the city from greasing the path for Beauchamp to use the power of the state to take the place over. A letter in 2005 to CYAC from the developer's agents darkly threatens that eminent domain proceedings will likely be initiated if it refuses his final offer.

Like many cities, National City has been able to throw its weight around against little guy property owners by playing a game with what constitutes blighted conditions. According to the city council, nearly two-thirds of the city is blighted, which magically transforms all that space into a no-property-rights zone, available for deep-pocket development.

Without the blight designation, developers would actually have to bid for property on the open market. They would have to pay whatever the property owner demanded or move on when the owner decided not to sell. With condemnation or even the threat of it, owners are backed into a corner. Their compensation is typically the predevelopment appraised value - an amount that is often too low for them to find comparable property elsewhere.

The state of California recently enacted tighter standards for what constitutes blight as a way of limiting eminent domain abuse. But that didn't seem to matter in National City. Its City Council voted unanimously just last month to extend its eminent domain authority over much of the city for another 10 years.

The mayor is obviously steamed that CYAC is fighting back. He says that relocation had been offered that would provide the kids with even better facilities. Jeff Rowes, an Institute for Justice attorney representing the CYAC, says that all alternative spots were in the blight zone and still subject to condemnation in the future. Besides, the gym doesn't want to close while another location is secured because that would leave dozens of young people without a place to go.

As a postscript, Morrison says that the developer is now planning to redesign his condo project. Rather than take up the entire block that included the CYAC, the development will now wrap around the gym, leaving the facility intact. When I asked Morrison if this means that CYAC doesn't have to worry about condemnation, he refused to say.

I'm guessing the gym is safe, at least for now. Meanwhile, Rowes is planning to legally challenge the slipshod and questionable way the city went about renewing its eminent domain authority. "Bogus blight," is what he calls it. Which means one day soon, National City's public officials may wake up to find their city is a lot less blighted than they had hoped.