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February 24, 2005
Homeowners hope Supreme Court decision on eminent domain case will bolster their own fight

By Amanda Beck

Jane Adams stepped down from her porch Monday and staked a sign that says it all: "This property not for sale. Stop eminent domain."

Hers was one of a few placards posted downtown that day, when some residents launched their opening volley in a fight over property rights that will likely stretch on for years.

"We don't want to move. We're just as happy as can be," Adams said Tuesday.

She stood in her 1912 home, one of Yorba Linda's oldest, and where she and her husband have lived for 30 years.

The home also lies in Yorba Linda's redevelopment area on a two-acre parcel the city has eyed for nine single-family dwellings.

City officials have said that, in their effort to amass the real estate needed for a new Town Center, they will make every effort to negotiate win-win agreements.

"Our council's made it clear that it would only use eminent domain as a last resort," City Manager Tamara Gates said Wednesday.

But even so, the council is committed to the project, and simply knowing city appraisers have already evaluated her home is enough to set Jane Adams on edge.

"You don't know where you stand or what to do with your property," Adams said.

So her sign also references something else -- something that she and other downtown residents are hoping will give them some support if there is a battle for their properties.

"Support Susette Kelo," the sign reads. It refers to a lawsuit was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.

Just as the city of Yorba Linda is beginning to pursue a development deal that would remodel the area near Adams' home, the country's highest court is taking up the issue of eminent domain for the first time in 50 years.

The court's decision in this case, Kelo v. City of New London, could curtail Yorba Lin da's ability to condemn homes in the redevelopment area, where the city envisions 300 new townhomes and 100,000 square-feet of retail space.

It is also possible that a decision -- even one in favor of Kelo -- would not limit the city's power at all.

But Adams and about 30 others have formed a group called Yorba Linda Residents for Responsible Redevelopment, and they are hoping the case will shed light on the plans for Yorba Linda.


New London, Conn., is a former military town that wants to redevelop about 90 acres of shorefront property with condominiums, a riverfront hotel and a convention center.

Over the years, the city has acquired virtually all of the needed real estate -- but seven property owners, including Susette Kelo, have held out. When the city used eminent domain to condemn their homes, the owners sued.

"In this case, they face the loss of the homes ... through the use of eminent domain not for a traditional public use, such as a road or public building," their Supreme Court argument reads.

Instead, the city seeks to take the homes so they can be turned over to a developer, who will build something that generates more tax dollars, a statement on which both the group and the city agree.

However, even if New London can create hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue from the project, that represents a public "benefit" and not the public "use" named in the Fifth Amendment, the homeowners say.


The similarities between the situations in New London and Yorba Linda seem obvious.

Though Yorba Linda has not used eminent domain, it has the power to do so downtown. If the need arose, the city could use eminent domain to secure a project to bring new homes and business to the area.

However, the cases also hold an important difference.

In California, redevelopment is intended to serve the public good -- and uses eminent domain -- to eliminate slum conditions commonly known as blight, redevelopment attorney Chris Sutton said.

He spoke in January at a meeting of about 30 residents, many of whom later joined Residents for Responsible Redevelopment.

"(Redevelopment) was originally intended for slums," Sutton said. "These are areas where, without public investment, there would be no private effort to alleviate crime, health concerns."

In these cases, eminent domain acquires property, which is then refashioned into something less hazardous.

This is the crux of the dilemma for California residents and officials watching Kelo.

In that case, the city admits to using eminent domain to woo a new project and make money, but the city of Yorba Linda explains its redevelopment as a way to eliminate a dangerous condition.

A Supreme Court decision could be worded in such a way as to call Yorba Linda's use of eminent domain into question, or the issue might not even come up.


In 1990, the City Council passed an ordinance that declared downtown Yorba Linda blighted. It described an area of inadequate public improvements and facilities, depreciated values and a high-density of population.

"You had automotive repair right next to residential buildings. You had streets that didn't go anywhere. You had all the conditions of blight," Assistant City Manager Dave Gruchow said.

"And if (three buildings) were still up that we tore down a few years ago, it would look exactly the same."

Since that time, Yorba Linda has spent about $15 million to buy 36 downtown properties, including three that will close escrow next month.

The city needs to acquire just a few more properties for the first stage of downtown redevelopment, and it is here that the Yorba Linda Redevelopment Agency could use the power of eminent domain.


Yorba Linda residents who are opposed to the current proposal for downtown are watching the Kelo case, hoping for a favorable verdict.

"If Kelo goes in our favor, it means that governments will not be able to take private property just to hand over to another private owner," said Pat Nelson, one of the organizers of Residents for Responsible Redevelopment.

She added that -- even if that doesn't happen -- just the existence of the case throws some light on plans for downtown, and some are beginning to question whether "blighted" is an apt description of Yorba Linda.

"That's not the definition of our downtown," she said. "I'm sorry. It's not a slum."

With these questions -- and with Kelo still percolating in the Supreme Court -- she and other members of the group are beginning to feel that they have something with which to meet the city's advances.

A verdict in the Kelo case is expected by summer.

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