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Measure Would Limit O.C. Land Grabs

Supervisors hope the largely symbolic law will prompt cities to pass similar ordinances.

May 07, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Orange County voters will decide June 6 whether to slap new controls on when county supervisors can seize private property.

At issue is whether the county can use its eminent domain powers to condemn land for private development such as shopping malls and auto dealerships.

If the proposal, known as Measure A, is approved by voters, "we will not condemn private property for big-box developments, private dealerships or for redevelopment," said Supervisor Chris Norby, who drafted the measure.

Measure A is one of two local measures on the ballot June 6. The other one, Measure B, will be on the ballot only in Yorba Linda. It seeks a public vote on large developments in the city. Both measures require a majority to pass.

The eminent domain measure is part of the backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., decision in June. The high court ruled that local governments could seize private property and hand it over to developers.

The decision has set off a landslide of legislation in statehouses around the country.

In the Connecticut case, homes were taken so an office park and hotel complex could be built.

The Orange County measure is largely symbolic because it restricts only what the county can do, and the Board of Supervisors is on record opposing taking property for private developers. It doesn't apply to the 34 cities.

But supervisors, who put it on the ballot, are hoping that it catches the attention of city councils as a model ordinance. Already Anaheim is considering such a law, Norby said.

Eminent domain allows governments the power to take private property by offering fair market value to the owner. Often, the courts end up deciding the fair price.

In Orange County, one of the most famous cases was in May 2002, when Cypress officials voted to seize property owned by a large church to make way for a revenue-generating Costco.

Cottonwood Christian Center, which planned to build a church on the site, won a federal injunction to block the city that summer.

The two sides agreed on a land deal the following year, and the church relocated.

At the county level, eminent domain has been used for minor road alignments, to enhance a hiking trail in North Tustin, and in recent months to seize homes and dairy ranches in Riverside County behind Prado Dam. The action was part of the county's flood-control efforts to enlarge the dam's capacity.

Although symbolic, Measure A could inspire cities to adopt similar measures, Board Chairman Bill Campbell said.

"We are, in effect, using the bully pulpit of the county that we would hope other cities will follow," he said. "And presumably, if it passes overwhelmingly, that too could be a signal for the cities."

In Yorba Linda, Measure B was sparked by plans for high-density downtown development by the city's redevelopment agency. The City Council approved a 60-acre project in December that called for 501 homes and 560,012 square feet of restaurants and shops.

But after residents protested, the council reversed itself in February. Patterned after Newport Beach's slow-growth effort known as the Greenlight initiative, which passed in 2000, Measure B would require that large projects be approved by city voters.

Those fighting the measure include local businessmen such as Randy Youngblood, who says the city's "sleepy little" downtown needs a boost.

"We have a world-class attraction in the Nixon Library and nothing to keep people's interest there, like new restaurants, shops and art galleries," he said. "We've got a downtown that looks like Pico Rivera."

But Jim Horton, a Measure B supporter, said the initiative doesn't stop growth. It only limits it under the city's current General Plan. If the council approves a huge development, it can be successful provided voters approve, he said.

"The redevelopment project frightened residents because we believed it was the tip of the iceberg as far as downtown development," Horton said.

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