One of the big issues in eminent domain over the past five years has been the role of blight in justifying eminent domain for redevelopment purposes. The seminal decision (that started all the ruckus) — Kelo v. City of New London – involved the use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes where the city did not even pretend it was acting to eliminate blight.
Kelo had little direct impact on California’s eminent domain law, because even before the Supreme Court issued its opinion in 2005, California’s law allowed eminent domain for redevelopment purposes only upon a proper showing of blight. In other words, California law did not allow eminent domain for pure economic development.
Following Kelo, however, public scrutiny on eminent domain and, in particular, eminent domain for redevelopment purposes, created a nationwide backlash. Most states enacted some form of eminent domain reform. In California, the reforms included SB 1206, which contained some tweaks to the law involving blight findings. More importantly, however, it seemed clear that courts would be way more likely to examine critically an agency’s blight findings in the wake of the Kelo backlash.
Yesterday, the Sixth District California Court of Appeal issued its decision in County of Los Angeles v. Glendora Redevelopment Project. There, the county sued Glendora, claiming that Glendora had not made proper blight findings in enacting its redevelopment plan. The opinion describes the trial court’s ruling as follows:
“Glendora’s findings of blight are not supported by substantial evidence” in the administrative record. Furthermore, the court concluded, given the absence of blight, “Glendora is without eminent domain authority in this instance.”
The Court of Appeal examined the four requisites for a proper blight finding:
- The area must be “predominantly urbanized";
- The area must be “characterized by” one or more conditions of physical blight;
- The area must be “characterized by” one or more conditions of economic blight; and
- These “blighting conditions must predominate in such a way as to affect the utilization of the area, causing a physical and economic burden on the community.”
In a painstaking analysis, the Court held that Glendora had not met the "physical blight" test. The court analyzed each of four statutory bases for a physical blight determination: (1) unsafe or unhealthy buildings; (2) code violations; (3) dilapidation and deterioration; and/or (4) defective design or construction. Finding no substantial evidence in the record of any of these conditions, the court invalidated the redevelopment plan.
The significance of this opinion lies not just in the holding itself, but in the court’s willingness to scrutinize the blight findings, rather than merely deferring to the agency’s determination. This is precisely the type of analysis that seemed likely in Kelo‘s wake. Whether this is the start of a trend remains to be seen.