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Say no to home wreckers

Protections against abuses of eminent domain are wise, but not all proposals are what they seem.

May 29, 2007

THE SUPREME COURT'S 2005 Kelo ruling upholding government power to seize peoples' houses and turn them over to private developers sent a chill through homeowners. It also sent a thrill through property rights activists who saw an opportunity to hitch the more radical parts of their agendas to ballot measures advertised simply as protection against home-stealing developers and politicians.

Last November, for example, California's ballot included a measure to block Kelo-like eminent domain but also, by the way, to effectively end basic zoning and environmental regulation. Fortunately, voters saw Proposition 90 for the Trojan horse that it was and rejected it.

But there will be other Kelo-fighting measures on at least one of the all-too-many California ballots next year. One proposal likely will pair protection against eminent domain abuse with a phaseout of rent-control laws. Rent stabilization would apply to current tenants but would elapse once they vacated their apartments. Voters must deal with that one, when the time comes, with eyes open and full awareness of its effect.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) has proposed a more modest ballot measure that directly takes on the Kelo threat without attempting to turn it into a broader, and unwarranted, political revolution. The language is not yet final and must get legislative approval before proceeding to the ballot. But its principles are sound: It would bar state or local government from condemning an owner-occupied home and transferring it to another private party.

The virtue of De La Torre's plan is that it recognizes the special status our society places on a home. No amount of money can adequately compensate for the emotional investment in a home, especially when it is lost to a government that has determined, for whatever reason, that some other private owner is better suited to have the real estate.

Small businesses would be able to choose between staying on as part of a revitalization plan, receiving the value of the business or receiving relocation funds and the full value of the property. Investment properties, of course, should also be protected from eminent domain abuse. In the end, though, their loss can be monetized and the owner compensated.

The details of this proposal are still taking shape, and those details may tell volumes about whether it deserves to become law. It should escape no one's attention that one of its sponsors, the League of California Cities, represents governments that use, and sometimes abuse, eminent domain. But its narrow, targeted approach is worthy of support.

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