Eminent Domain: The Dueling Measures On Tuesday's Ballot

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 29, 2008
It’s a windy, fragrant morning at the Brocchini family farm in Stockton. Dump trucks regularly roar by on their way to the landfill across the street. “What we’re standing on right now is mine – my family’s, I should say. Across the road, the flatland you see, this side of the landfill area, that was mine at one time as well. 95 acres.” Second-generation farmer Bob Brocchini says in 1995 the city seized a portion of his land through eminent domain for a public landfill....but then ended up selling it to a private one. He fought it for a decade in court. He spent half-a-million dollars. And lost. The city gave city gave Brocchini 340-thousand dollars. He’d been offered three times that by another landfill. “After you go through that process, you – it doesn’t take much to convince you that it’s unjust, it’s unfair and something must be done to correct it. I’m afraid it might happen to me again someday.” That’s why Brocchini supports prop. 98. The constitutional amendment would prohibit governments from seizing houses, farms and businesses and turning them over for private use. It also phases out rent control.... but we’ll get to that in a minute. The measure would still allow the taking of property for a public use, like a road or a park. And under 98, if the government doesn’t end up using the land for that public purpose: “They have to come back to you, as the original land-owner, offer it back to you at the price they took it from you.” That’s California Farm Bureau Federation Vice President Paul Wenger. He says 98 also includes protections for natural resources on private property – such as water. “We need more reservoirs and until we get those, we are afraid that governmental agencies will start to take farmland for its water and we don’t think that’s right.” But opponents – including Governor Schwarzenegger - see it very differently. Since the measure restricts the taking of land for its resources, they say it would seriously restrict the state’s ability to build new dams or canals. Other groups oppose 98 for another reason. Remember that rent control provision? Dean Preston is with Tenants Together, a renter’s rights organization. He says a phase-out of rent control could be devastating to seniors on fixed incomes: “For a lot of them, the only thing that stands between them and homelessness or leaving the state are the rent control protections that they have.” Most of the money for the pro-98 campaign has come from apartment and mobile home park interests. While Prop 98 covers a slew of issues, Proposition 99 is a narrow measure. “Prop 99 provides straightforward simple reform by protecting homeowners from having their homes taken to give to private development…” That’s Trudy Schaefer with the League of Women Voters, which supports Prop 99. The Constitutional Amendment only protects homes occupied by their owners for at least a year. Governments could not turn them over to private developers. Prop 99 would still allow for using eminent domain for projects where blight has been an issue-- like South Sacramento. After school kids flock to this modern community center in Phoenix Park…. It offers programs in the neighborhood where they were once afraid to play outside. Michael Sims lives here with his four kids—but he left during troubled times in the late ‘90’s when rundown rentals served as magnets for trouble. “It was drive by shootings, it was killings every five minutes, kids, families, nobody would walk the streets.” Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, who is running for re-election, points to projects like Phoenix Park as eminent domain successes. She says Prop 99 covers the issue people care about most. “And the bottom line was they didn’t want to lose grandma’s house, and they didn’t want to lose their own house. They didn’t want government to have that kind of control over them.” Local government groups back Prop 99—they include the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties. But Opponents say that’s like the fox guarding the henhouse— a sham measure to protect local government powers and confuse voters. John Revelli opposes 99 and supports 98. He says his tire business in Oakland was taken through eminent domain. He says 99 will not protect people. “It has no power to do anything because it would still allow the state to come in and take your property.” Some analysts say when there are dueling measures on the same ballot-- voters are inclined to reject them both.