Is Meaningful Eminent Domain Reform Finally On The Horizon?

Many states have enacted eminent domain reform since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which broadly defined “public use” to include the government’s acquiring property for another private owner to realize an economic benefit (such as increasing tax revenues).  However, as reported by the Institute for Justice in its 50 States Report Card, many of those reform efforts have been insignificant.  And, despite repeated efforts over the last 13 years, Congress has yet to pass legislation limiting the use of eminent domain for truly public uses.  However, the proposed effort to pursue eminent domain reform has not gone away, as an article by FreedomWorks is reporting that this week the House Judiciary Committee will markup the Private Property Rights Protection Act, H.R. 1689.

If passed, the Private Property Rights Protection Act would prohibit any state or federal government agency that received federal economic development funds from using eminent domain for purposes of economic development.  The bill would also provide private property owners with more rights should their property be taken for economic development purposes.  The question is whether the bill will gain enough momentum this time around, as it previously passed by overwhelming margins in the House in 2005, 2012 by voice vote, and 2014, yet it has never been considered by the Senate.

Perhaps this time it will be different, especially with the recent release of the movie Little Pink House, which covers the City of New London’s efforts to condemn Susette Kelo’s house to enhance the City’s tax base.  If you’re interested in this topic, it sounds like a must-see (or if you’re more of a reader, check out Jeff Benedict’s book, which I recently received as a gracious gift by the former IRWA President).  Columnist George Will wrote that the movie “will win the Oscar for best picture if Hollywood’s political preening contains even a scintilla of sincerity about speaking truth to power.”

So stay tuned for eminent domain reform, and perhaps Oscar nominations.

College of the Desert to Pay $22 Million to Settle Eminent Domain Case

For years, the College of the Desert has been seeking to acquire the former Palm Springs mall in order to expand its campus to the west valley.  It has been quite a lengthy battle, as the property owner had repeatedly objected to the College’s use of eminent domain for the site.  However, last week, the parties finally reached a settlement of the condemnation action, with the College agreeing to pay $22 million for the property — dramatically more than the $9.6 million the College originally offered to pay.

According to an article in the Desert Sun, the 29-acre property will allow the College to leverage its partnership with DIGICOM Learning, where the College will establish a Center for Digital Media Education in the new West Valley Campus, where both K-12 and college students can learn skills in video storytelling.  The goal is to train students in digital media and to connect them with Coachella Valley businesses that need employees trained in video.

Apparently, the owner paid in the $9-10 million-range for the property in 2012.  Even with the improving real estate economy, and despite the mall becoming vacant, the owner did quite well.


Should Property Owners Pursue Takings Claims in State or Federal Court?

When state and local governments impose unreasonable conditions or exactions on private property, owners pursuing a regulatory takings claim often face a maze of procedural obstacles just to have their case heard. I once described these procedural obstacles as resembling Alice’s trip through Wonderland, with the parties falling in and out of state and then federal court (instead of a rabbit hole) based on procedural and substantive rules that often seem as logical as the Mad Hatter’s recitals at the Tea Party. The reason for this maze stems from (i) a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172, 194-96 (1985), which held that landowners must first unsuccessfully seek compensation in state court before bringing a Fifth Amendment takings claim in federal court, and (ii) subsequent court decisions holding that if property owners go to state court first, they find themselves later barred from federal court because they have already litigated the issues in state court.  This “Catch-22” may finally be resolved, as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Knick v. Township of Scott (Case No. 17-647) to revisit its holding in Williamson County and potentially allow owners to bring a takings claim under the U.S. Constitution directly in federal court.


In Williamson County, a property owner successfully pursued a regulatory takings claim in federal court when its residential development was stopped, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, stating that the developer had to first pursue its claims in state court.  Later, in San Remo Hotel v. San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323 (2005), the Court held that a property owner who first pursued a takings claim in state court could not thereafter pursue the claim in federal court since the issue had already been litigated.  These decisions placed property owners in a “Catch-22,” with a seemingly impossible procedural hurdle to pursue takings claims in federal court.

In Knick, a local Pennsylvania government agency enacted an ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be open and accessible to the public, and later attempted to enforce the ordinance to allow the public to access a privately-owned 90-acre parcel of land that “may” contain an ancient burial ground.  Not wanting widespread public access to its private property, the owner sued in state court, but the court refused to rule since the government withdrew its enforcement efforts on the owner’s property.  The owner then sued in federal court, but the court held the claims were not ripe under Williamson County until the owner filed a new takings claim in state court.

Upcoming U.S. Supreme Court Decision

The owner appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case to address the Williamson County procedural issue.  Specifically, the Court will answer the following question:  “Whether the Court should reconsider the portion of Williamson County [], requiring property owners to exhaust state court remedies to ripen federal takings claims, as suggested by Justices of this Court? [].”

We likely won’t obtain a decision until early 2019, but it will be interesting to see if the Court finally overrules its prior decision and allows property owners to pursue their takings claims directly in federal court. Given the widespread criticism of the procedural maze, including by the Court’s own justices, I would not be surprised to see the Williamson County rule abolished or at least significantly minimized.

Another Inverse Condemnation Temporary Damages Claim Fails to Get Off the Ground

As we’ve seen all too many times in California, when local municipalities delay development approvals — even improperly — courts are reluctant to find liability under an inverse condemnation cause of action and award temporary damages. While there have been some successful cases (see Lockaway Storage v. County of Alameda (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 161), those results are the exception, not the rule.  A recent court of appeal opinion, Mahon v. County of San Mateo 2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1483, provides an example of the uphill battle a property owner faces in successfully recovering for a temporary taking.

In Mahon, a property owner sought to develop two homes on his property.  The owner originally sought approvals in 1999, and after numerous hearings and changes to his plans to address public comments, the proposed development was denied by the County Board in 2005.  The property owner filed a petition for writ of mandate, along with an inverse condemnation action.  The owner was successful on the writ, with the trial court finding the owner had not been given a fair and proper hearing and that one of the Board members had become personally involved in the underlying permit application process.

The property owner finally obtained a new Board hearing in 2009 (10 years later), and the application for development was once again denied, with the Board concluding that under a recent case interpreting the Subdivision Map Act, the owner could not develop two residences since the property had not been lawfully subdivided. When brought back to the court, the trial court again held that the County should issue the development permits, and the County did so, conditioned upon the owner’s demonstrating his property had been lawfully subdivided.  Even then, because there was no evidence that a lawful subdivision had occurred, the owner still could not develop the two residences.

In 2016 (17 years after the owner had originally applied for permits), the trial court finally reached a decision on the owner’s inverse condemnation cause of action. The court concluded that there was no taking, despite conceding that the owner had been treated unfairly, had been denied due process, and had been required to satisfy years of inconsistent and ever-shifting demands by the County.  The Court of Appeal confirmed the decision, explaining that even though the County had committed a procession of delays and errors, the owner had viable development options.  The Court explained that despite the known political pressure, the owner chose to try and obtain approvals through continuous design changes without doing the one thing that the County clearly wanted:  significant revisions to the size of the planned residences.  Under the Penn Central line of regulatory takings cases, the Court held that while the owner was initially denied a proper hearing, the delays in securing that hearing through the court did not amount to a taking.

Mahon highlights the difficulty for property owners to successfully recover for a temporary taking due to improper delays in the entitlement process.  Even if the municipality acts improperly, courts will typically give the agency broad leeway before finding liability.  It is imperative that owners demonstrate they are left with virtually no options to develop their property, or that the agency’s actions go well beyond mere errors or typical delays.

Important New Decision Impacting Legal Issues Motions in California Inverse Condemnation Cases

As any experienced California eminent domain lawyer knows, there is a unique statutory mechanism that allows parties to bring a legal issues motion to secure a court’s ruling on a litany of issues that impact compensation. This statutory right is set forth in Code of Civil Procedure section 1260.040 and reads as follows:

“(a)          If there is a dispute between plaintiff and defendant over an evidentiary or other legal issue affecting the determination of compensation, either party may move the court for a ruling on the issue.  The motion shall be made not later than 60 days before commencement of trial on the issue of compensation.  The motion shall be heard by the judge assigned for trial of the case.

(b)          Notwithstanding any other statute or rule of court governing the date of final offers and demands of the parties and the date of trial of an eminent domain proceeding, the court may postpone those dates for a period sufficient to enable the parties to engage in further proceedings before trial in response to its ruling on the motion.

(c)           This section supplements, and does not replace any other pretrial or trial procedure otherwise available to resolve an evidentiary or other legal issue affecting the determination of compensation.”

Section 1260.040 was enacted in 2001. The Law Revision Commission’s Comments state that Section 1260.404 “is intended to provide a mechanism by which a party may obtain early resolution of an in limine motion or other dispute affecting valuation.”

Since section 1260.040 was adopted in 2001, I’ve found it to be very useful to bring issues before the trial court that have a direct impact on compensation. For example, if there is a question about whether a larger parcel exists, it’s a good idea to file a motion under section 1260.040 to get a decision from the court before your appraiser proceeds to appraise or not appraise severance damages.  Similarly, if there is a question about whether certain evidence must be ignored under the Project Influence Rule codified by Code of Civil Procedure section 1263.330, it’s best to secure a court’s ruling on the issue before appraisals are exchanged.  Securing these types of legal rulings impacting compensation has a number of practical advantages.  First, it reduces the risk that your expert’s opinion may be impeached or excluded.  Second, it may promote settlement.  Finally, it may save both sides in legal expenses to have these issues determined earlier in the case as opposed to just prior to trial via a motion in limine.

While section 1260.040’s applicability to direct condemnation cases is not controversial, there has been disagreement about whether it should apply to inverse condemnation cases. Yesterday, the California Court of Appeal issued a decision in Weiss v. The People ex rel. Department of Transportation, et al., in which the Court held that section 1260.040 is inapplicable to inverse condemnation cases.  In Weiss, the plaintiffs sued Caltrans and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) for alleged damages resulting from the construction of a sound wall along the 5-Freeway.  The plaintiffs claimed that the sound wall had the opposite effect and increased noise and related impacts on their homes thereby diminishing their property values.

Caltrans and OCTA filed a motion under section 1260.040 to argue that the plaintiffs could not establish liability. Essentially, the agencies used section 1260.040 as a motion for summary judgment.  The court granted the motion after finding that plaintiffs could not establish liability.  The plaintiffs appealed and argued that section 1260.040 does not apply to inverse condemnation cases, and should only apply to issues impacting compensation (and not liability) in eminent domain actions.  While a prior appellate court had previously decided that section 1260.040 does apply to inverse condemnation cases (Dina v. People ex rel. Dept. of Transportation (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 1029), the court in Weiss disagreed.  Without getting too much into the details here, I’ll just say that the court in Weiss relied on rules of statutory construction and the legislative history to reach its decision.  The court effectively concluded that because section 1260.040 is found in the “eminent domain” law, it does not apply to inverse condemnation cases.  The court also concluded that issues of liability are different from issues involving compensation, and that deciding liability does little to nothing to further section 1260.040’s goal of promoting settlement.

While it is true that section 1260.040 is found within the eminent domain law, there are other statutes within the eminent domain law that expressly state that they don’t apply to inverse condemnation. For example, section 1263.530 states that the goodwill statutes are not intended to deal with compensation for inverse condemnation claims for temporary interference with or interruption of business.  There is no similar express carve out for section 1260.040.

At present, there is a clear split between two appellate courts on this issue, so it’s possible the Weiss decision will be appealed to the California Supreme Court.  We’ll have to wait and see.  Until then, practitioners in inverse condemnation cases may be wise to stay away from section 1260.040 and instead rely on one or more other procedural mechanisms to tee up liability issues (e.g., motion for judgment on the pleadings, motion for summary judgment, or motion for nonsuit.)  These are hardly equal substitutes for the lenient notice provisions that apply to section 1260.040.  And section 1260.040 also enables a court to weigh evidence while pleading motions don’t.  But the current uncertainty surrounding section 1260.040 indicates that practitioners should stay clear from it in inverse cases unless and until the appellate courts resolve the disagreement between the Weiss and Dina courts.

Learn More About the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP)

On Tuesday, March 20, beginning at 11:30 a.m. PT, Chapter One of the International Right of Way Association (IRWA) will be holding a joint luncheon with the Southern California Chapter of the Appraisal Institute at Luminarias Restaurant in Monterey Park, CA. Nossaman’s  Litigation Department Chair and Co-Chair of its Real Estate Practice Group, David Graeler, will serve as the luncheon speaker, providing a presentation entitled “Scenarios to Consider Appraising without USPAP.” To register, please visit the IRWA Ch. 1 website here.
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Nossaman Participating in Key Q1 Eminent Domain Conferences

In January, please join Nossaman LLP Eminent Domain & Valuation Partners David Graeler and Rick Rayl at CLE International’s 20th Anniversary Southern California Eminent Domain Conference, taking place at the DoubleTree Downtown, Los Angeles.  Mr. Graeler will present “Introduction to the Eminent Domain Playbook Part II (Post-Filing Activities): The Real Rules” on Thursday, January 18, at 9:30 a.m. PT, and Mr. Rayl will present “Recent Legal Developments: 2017-2018” on Friday, January 19, at 8:35 a.m. PT.  Additional leaders in this field will provide valuable insight and multiple, in-depth points-of-view on important topics such as:

  • Eminent Domain Legislation in California
  • The Future of Regulatory Takings
  • Upcoming Projects
  • Testimony
  • Utilities Takings by Public Agencies
  • The Paralegal as a Key Member of the Eminent Domain Team
  • Right of Entry
  • Jury Selection
  • Goodwill

Visit the CLE International website to review the full agenda and register.  Participants can earn up to 13 Hours MCLE Credit, including One Hour of Ethics, or up to 13 Hours of IRWA and Appraiser Credit.  CLE International has been a provider of continuing professional education programs throughout the United States and Canada since 1983.  Its seminars, which focus on the cutting edge of emerging legal issues of vital importance to attorneys and their clients, real estate professionals, accountants, consultants and government agencies, have received wide acclaim from bench and bar for the high quality of its faculty and its efficient organization of detailed and useful information.  CLE International is accredited by the bar associations of the many states where its programs are presented.

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When Proposed Public and Private Projects Collide

Infrastructure projects take years to develop:  the environmental review, funding, design, procurement, and construction of a public project is time consuming in any state, but even more so in California given the strict regulations and oversight any public agency must comply with.  During that lengthy process, private properties situated in the proposed project alignment remain in a state of flux.  When those impacted properties are slated for development, what are the parties to do?

According to an article in the Morgan Hill Times, Council OKs new housing in one of two bullet-train paths, this situation is currently playing out in Morgan Hill, where a residential home builder is proposing to construct a subdivision which lies in the path of one of the proposed alignments for a public transit project.  Despite the potential future conflict, the City approved the developer’s subdivision entitlements so building the residential units can commence.  Is this the right choice, or is there a better alternative?

On the one hand, there is no guarantee the public project will come to fruition, and the final alignment has not even been selected.  So it makes sense to allow the private development to go forward.  On the other hand, if the public project does proceed on this alignment, instead of acquiring vacant land the agency will now have to acquire a number of new residences and relocate impacted families at a much higher price.

Under California law, the City’s decision to allow the residential development to proceed is likely the correct approach.  If the City refused to allow the owner to secure entitlements due to a potential conflict with the train alignment, the City would potentially be held liable for inverse condemnation.  We’ve recently seen this play out in the Jefferson Street Ventures case.  Such a situation may create liability before the public project’s alignment is determined, or before project funding is even available.

However, what if, in order to minimize costs and impacts, the public agency decided to acquire the potentially impacted property now, before it was developed?  Unfortunately, this raises another host of issues, as the agency could eventually risk a challenge to its environmental approvals with someone claiming that the agency’s purchase of the impacted property influenced the ultimate selection of the preferred project alternative.  Similarly, acquiring property before securing environmental approvals of the public project could jeopardize funding for the project from federal agencies.

In situations like these, there typically is not a great solution.  However, one potential opportunity that has been utilized more frequently, and that is allowed by a number of federal oversight agencies, is securing approvals to acquire potentially impacted property under a “protective acquisition” exception.  Such an approach allows a public agency to acquire impacted property before environmental approvals where the acquisition is necessary to prevent the imminent development of a parcel that is likely to be needed for the proposed public project.  If the agency can document that the developer has taken concrete steps to develop the property, and imminent development would conflict with the public project, such an early acquisition may be permissible.

In order to avoid tainting the environmental process and the consideration of project alternatives, protective acquisitions are only allowed under a limited number of circumstances, and the agency must comply with the Uniform Relocation Act and all other laws and regulations.  But it is definitely an approach that both public and private parties should consider exploring, and may even be one that creates a win-win solution.  Perhaps it could even benefit the situation currently taking place in Morgan Hill.

Caltrans’ Ceres Interchange Project May Result in Eminent Domain

With the passing of California’s new gas tax (SB1) earlier this year, local government agencies have come across a new source of funding to complete public infrastructure projects.  According to an article in the Ceres Courier, Caltrans Seeks Comments on Service Road Interchange, the City of Ceres hopes its Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 Interchange project can benefit from the new funds.  As part of the project, Caltrans and the City are planning one of the State’s first “diverging diamond” designs, which would add a new interchange at Service Road and modify the Mitchell interchange at Highway 99.  As a result, El Camino would be eliminated and a number of properties would be impacted.

The City has been purchasing impacted properties on El Camino in anticipation of the project, but deals have not been reached with all property owners.  The City is hoping to avoid the use of eminent domain, but it hasn’t been ruled out.  In addition to acquiring impacted properties, typically service roads and new interchanges can substantially change access (ingress and egress) to a property, which could also result in a potential taking triggering the need to pay compensation.  Many times the government does not consider changes in access when deciding what properties to acquire or when make offers of just compensation under eminent domain law.  But a substantial impairment of access or a taking of a property’s abutter’s rights can trigger liability, and if the agency does not formally acquire such rights, a property owner could bring an inverse condemnation action to recover compensation.  If successful, the inverse condemnation action also entitles the owner to recover attorneys’ fees, expert fees, and other litigation costs, so it’s important for agencies to ensure they consider potential liability with such projects.

The final design is still open to comment, but absent any major comments, Caltrans intends to proceed as planned.

Join Nossaman at the Appraisal Institute’s 50th Annual Litigation Seminar

This week, Nossaman Eminent Domain Partner Bernadette Duran-Brown will be speaking at the Southern California Appraisal Institute’s 50th Annual Litigation Seminar.

Ms. Duran-Brown will be providing a Summary of Recent Eminent Domain and Valuation-Related Cases. Her presentation will cover the most recent and upcoming legal developments and is essential for anyone involved with public projects or affected by large-scale development in the region.  We will provide a follow-up blog post summarizing Ms. Duran-Brown’s presentation for anyone unable to attend in person.

The seminar will be held on Thursday, November 9th, at the historic Santa Anita Park and Club House, located at 285 West Huntington Drive, Arcadia, California.  Click HERE for more information and to register.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Appraisal Institute’s Annual Litigation Seminar, it provides litigation professionals with insight into the complex and ever-changing litigation valuation arena including the trends and issues shaping the appraisal and legal fields. CLE credit will be available for the seminar, including 7 hours of BREA and AI CE with MCLE CE pending.

We hope to see you there!