New Court Decision Addresses Eminent Domain Issues

The California Court of Appeal issued an interesting unpublished decision yesterday addressing a number of eminent domain issues, ranging from right to take challenges, entitlement to goodwill, severance damages, and jury instructions.  The case, City of San Luis Obispo v. Hanson, garnered enough attention that several third parties filed Amicus briefs with the Court.

By way of background, the City of San Luis Obispo decided to realign a road partly in order to accommodate a newly approved Costco development.  The realignment required right-of-way acquisition from a property on which the Rose Garden Inn operated.  After Costco was unable to reach an agreement with the property's owner on the acquisition price, the City adopted an appraisal (which found no severance damages) prepared by an appraiser hired by Costco, made an offer based on that appraisal, and passed a resolution of necessity to acquire the property by eminent domain. 

The property owner's right to take challenge was unsuccessful, and the case proceeded to trial on compensation.  The trial court found the Inn was not entitled to lost business goodwill, and the jury returned a verdict finding only about a quarter of the amount of severance damages claimed by the owner.

On appeal, the following issues were decided:

  • The Road Realignment Met the "Public Necessity" Test:  While the road realignment was partly caused by Costco's project, and Costco would clearly benefit from the realignment, the project still met the "public necessity" test in that the road was needed by the public and the City had considered realignment regardless of the Costco development.
  • The City's Adoption of Costco's Appraiser's Value Was Appropriate:  The Court held that the City could adopt the opinion of the appraiser retained by Costco (instead of hiring its own appraiser to value the take), as long as the appraiser was independent and impartial, and the City was not required to turn over the full appraisal on which its offer was based (it was only required to provide a copy of the summary basis of appraisal).
  • The City was not Precommitted to Taking the Property by Eminent Domain:  Even though the Costco project was already approved (which required the realignment), the City did not abuse its discretion in adopting the resolution of necessity because it was not precommitted to the taking; the City substantially debated the issue and ultimately could have modified the realignment had it chosen to do so.
  • The City's Severance Damages Determination Was Appropriate:  The City's appraiser determined the severance damages suffered solely based on the cost to cure method of valuation, and it assumed that the City would build driveways on the remainder of the property.  The Court held that the appraiser was not required to value the remainder of the property before and after the taking, and that a condemning agency may agree to do work on the owner's property to reduce compensable damages (as long as it does not contradict the resolution of necessity).
  • The Trial Court Appropriately Declined to Allow Testimony on the Business' Alleged Lost Goodwill:  The business' goodwill appraiser determined that the business possessed goodwill equal to ten percent of total income, and that all the goodwill would be lost because of the uncertainty of the project.  The court appropriately excluded this testimony because it was already part of the appraiser's calculation of severance damages the business would suffer, and because the appraiser's ten percent figure was arbitrary and could not be supported.
  • The Jury Instruction Stating the Costs of the Acquisition Would be Borne by the Public Was Appropriate:  The jury was not told that Costco would be paying the ultimate costs of the acquisition, but instead that the public must pay the compensation.  The Court held this instruction was appropriate, as the jury need not be made aware of Costco's role, and ultimately, Costco may be partly reimbursed by the City if Costco paid more than its fair share of the roadway (since other property owners benefiting from the project must pay a portion as well through assessments/development impact fees).

In all, this was an exciting case for an eminent domain attorney, as it dealt with many issues that rarely occur in one case.  Although the case is unpublished, and therefore cannot be cited as law, it is useful to see how at least one Court of Appeal panel views these issues.

California Eminent Domain Report is a one-stop resource for everything new and noteworthy in eminent domain. We cover all aspects of eminent domain, including condemnation, inverse condemnation and regulatory takings. We also keep track of current cases, project announcements, budget issues, legislative reform efforts and report on all major eminent domain conferences and seminars in the Western United States.

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