Libertarian Perspective: Eminent Domain: Is the Government Here to Help?

Is the government here to help? I pondered that question after being elected to a citizen’s committee to advise the California city of Seaside on whether it should reinstate eminent domain powers. After all, I was now an elected official. I was part of the government.

That question resonated louder after I was elected chair of the Project Area Committee (PAC). I was now deep in the belly of the beast and wondered whether I would be listening to crying citizens pleading for us not to seize their property. However, the committee was mainly advisory. Still, we worked hard and listened to lawyers, consultants, and citizens and discovered that we were not going to make the final decision.

What I failed to anticipate was how government systems truly operate on the local level. I assumed that government this close to the citizenry would be fair and honest. I had a rude awakening. The city spent thousands of dollars trying to convince my committee about the benefits of eminent domain, while simultaneously saying they were taking a neutral stand.

In meeting after meeting, we were told about all of the government-sponsored goodies available for those displaced by eminent domain. There were tax advantages. There were friendly consultants to help homeowners and businesses relocate. Any business could be relocated across town or across the nation. Rezoning would magically take place as needed.

The fantasy began to crumble when citizens in the audience told their stories. We first heard from those in the auto repair industry, who felt that they were unwanted in Seaside. They said that if their property was taken, they would be unable to relocate in Seaside. I asked why. They said that there was no land zoned for their type of business. In fact, they had already been zoned out of their current location. If their building were ever to burn down, they could not rebuild.

Other unsettling information began to drift into the committee hearings. Business owners said that they had tried to redevelop their property but city officials blocked their attempts. One businessman wanted to construct four apartments or condos on a second floor, the exact mixed-use formula that Seaside authorities claim to encourage. But at every turn, he was turned down. Finally, they told him they did not have enough water credits for his project.

My committee understood that the whole area was under a water moratorium. Then again, our committee had been set into motion because a baseball player-turned-developer, Reggie Jackson, had proposed a 250-room hotel and had plunked down $50,000 to get the ball rolling. Of course, the obvious question came up. If a local businessman could not obtain a water permit for four bathrooms, where was Reggie Jackson going to get one for 250 bathrooms? Nobody in the government agency would answer that question.

Other business leaders had similar stories to tell. Some had attempted to work closely with the Seaside Redevelopment Agency but seemed to have run into intractable roadblocks. These citizens expressed their desire to improve the downtown area of Seaside but were denied access, as if the city purposely wanted to create blight.

What I soon discovered was that the city-hired consultants and lawyers were saying things that did not match what the citizens were experiencing. Government officials confidently said that they played fair, but a number of citizens cited nightmares instead. Although my PAC group was told that redevelopment laws protect property owners from all sort of abuses during the eminent domain process, an older woman told a different story.

This woman owned a property in a hot eminent domain area. She refused to be bought out, although the Seaside Redevelopment Agency had threatened her with eminent domain. When her tenants left, she attempted to rent out the property. Every time she had an interested tenant, the city government refused to grant a use permit. After three years without rental income, the woman was forced to sell the property to the government at a price she considered unfair.

I got the feeling that the city only wanted massive redevelopment projects that brought in big tax revenues. Perhaps this was why Seaside’s elected official ignored their own citizen’s committee’s 7 to 1 recommendation not to reinstate this power, as well as the voter-approved Prop. 99. All five city council members voted to reinstate eminent domain powers. They completely ignored the wishes of the citizens. From my position, it looked like the government was more interested in helping itself to future tax revenues than in helping the community.