Calif. Voters Weigh Eminent Domain Ballot Proposal

Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports on how leaders of the property rights movement in California are sponsoring Proposition 90, a ballot measure that would limit the government's ability to condemn private property for economic growth.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Eminent domain has always been controversial. It can allow a government to take homes for private development. But now the issue hits state ballots in places like California and Michigan. In a moment, a neighborhood activist and a real estate developer weigh in.

But first a closer look at California. Leaders of the property rights movement are sponsoring Proposition 90. The ballot measure would limit the government's ability to condemn private property.

Reporter Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC in Los Angeles has the story.

ILSA SETZIOL: TV ads for Proposition 90 featured Verla and Leo Lambert at their kitchen table in the middle-class community of Garden Grove, California.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Ms. VERLA LAMBERT (Resident, Garden Grove, California): After 50 years in our home, the government tried to take it away from us. Imagine our government taking our homes and giving it to a developer.

Mr. LEO LAMBERT (Resident, Garden Grove, California): To build a theme park.

SETZIOL: Kevin Spillane, a spokesman for Prop 90, says the Lamberts' story is a classic example of how governments abuse eminent domain, which allows them to unilaterally buy property needed for public projects.

Mr. KEVIN SPILLANE (Spokesman, Proposition 90): And it has gotten away from its traditional purpose of building roads or schools or police stations, and instead too often issues to benefit wealthy and politically connected developers and generate revenue for local government.

SETZIOL: Prop 90 limits government's ability to seize private property, but they can still take property to build roads, schools, parks and such. Governments may not condemn properties to promote strictly private projects, like new shopping centers.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says he supports that idea, but opposes Prop 90. He says it would have prevented some of the county's most important zoning decisions, including rules that limit where houses can be built in the mountains near Malibu.

Mr. ZEV YAROSLAVSKY (Supervisor, Los Angeles County): Where we have tried to protect the ridge lines of the mountains from gaudy, ugly and defiling developments where the occupant of the home would have a 360-degree view, but that the rest of the world would have to look at that gaudy building.

SETZIOL: That's because Prop 90 requires governments, thus taxpayers, to compensate property owners for substantial economic loss from new laws and rules, including changes in zoning even if the government doesn't actually buy the property. That's only fair, says Prop 90 spokesman Kevin Spillane.

Mr. SPILLANE: Because frankly the rules are being changed on the midstream. For a lot - most people, the property they own is their retirement, it's their sole investment, it's the source of their livelihood. Don't change that zoning on them after they've already purchased the property.

SETZIOL: That's especially true for seniors and low-income minorities who haven't the money or power to fight city hall and whose property maybe their only asset. But Supervisor Yaroslavsky says Prop 90 will discourage needed laws.

Mr. YAROSLAVSKY: Because what I see as a diminution of my value you may see as a societal benefit.

SETZIOL: Under Prop 90, governments don't have to compensate for economic loss from laws that protect public health and safety. But environmentalists who support laws that often fall outside this category are particularly worried. They say the state and local governments won't and can't pay out every time a new rule is passed. They say that's already happening in Oregon, where a similar but more limited law passed two years ago.

Tom Adams of the California League of Conservation Voters says by requiring payments for these so-called regulatory takings, Prop 90 promotes some of the most extreme ideas of the property rights movement.

Mr. TOM ADAMS (California League of Conservation Voters): Proposition 90 is supported almost entirely by a wealthy New York real estate investor whose name is Howie Rich. He's, you know, a friend of Grover Norquist and the two of them both believe that they want to shrink government down to the size where they can drown it in the bathtub.

SETZIOL: Meantime, local governments and the bankers who helped them find money for public projects are Prop 90's biggest opponents. So far, Prop 90 appears to be cruising to victory. A statewide poll indicated solid voter support. And there are similar measures on the November ballot in at least three other states.

For NEWS & NOTES, I'm Ilsa Setziol in Los Angeles.

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