It seems most commentators on eminent domain generally, and on the use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes in particular, adopt an extreme stance. The loudest voices, especially in the "post-Kelo" world, tend to be property-rights advocates who denounce virtually any use of eminent domain, especially for redevelopment purposes.
A good example of this appears in a recent San Diego News Network article by Brian Peterson, president of the Grantville Action Group: "What we Learned at a Redevelopment Conference: Don't do E-mail." The article summarizes two "redevelopment conferences" hosted by the Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform, an organization described as a "state-wide, anti-redevelopment abuse organization." The article contains some very good advice regarding making a record of potential abuses and, specifically, advises owners facing condemnation to present their arguments to the condemning agency in writing.
The article correctly notes that detailed written comments will typically have greater impact than oral comments, made under the constraints of a public hearing -- which may allow a speaker only about three minutes to state his or her case.
Though the article does not expressly state it, I would strongly advise any landowner facing eminent domain who wants to challenge the project to make sure he or she has an experienced eminent domain attorney participate in preparing the written submission. It is far too easy to make a procedural error even at this early stage that could impact the likely success of a subsequent right-to-take challenge.
The article also warns that emails are suspect, citing anecdotal evidence that emails may routinely go unread:
For a while now, there has been the suspicion, and some evidence, that City Council offices are not opening all constituent e-mails.
It is the article's "big picture," however, that causes me concern. The article claims "there have been 346 abuses of eminent domain in California" since the Kelo decision, and it implies that a primary reason for this is because "California is one of the few states to not reform eminent domain in any meaningful way following Kelo."
I don't know what the 346 examples of "abuse" are, though I am confident that many of them would qualify as abuse under any reasonable definition. I am equally confident, however, that many examples of eminent domain -- including eminent domain for redevelopment purposes -- yield massive benefits for the public, and should be applauded, not condemned.
In the end, we would all be better off if those with extreme viewpoints on this issue (on both sides of the debate) would step back and analyze each individual situation on its own merits:
- Redevelopment agencies would be well served to examine more closely whether eminent domain is really necessary, and whether the public benefit to be gained really is substantial enough to warrant throwing someone out of their home or business; AND
- Property rights advocates should pause to examine the benefits a redevelopment project will generate and decide whether those benefits could be obtained without the use of eminent domain (often, they cannot) before claiming another "abuse" has occurred.
Ultimately, if redevelopment agencies choose their projects wisely, and use eminent domain only when truly necessary, the real debate should focus on ensuring owners receive proper compensation for their properties and businesses, not on trying to stop the projects. And, to the extent California requires more eminent domain reform, the place to look may well be in the rules regarding how compensation is derived, not in the circumstances in which the government can condemn.