“This may sound like a dumb question, but can you explain to me how eminent domain is legal? Whenever it's explained to me, it just sounds like the government taking advantage of a citizen's rights."
Great question! I’ll try to answer briefly a question that has been the subject of books.
The first legal foundation is found in the U.S. Constitution, Fifth Amendment: “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Two concepts are evident here; first, the taking of private property for a “public use” and second, the requirement for “just compensation.” The second legal foundation in California is found in Article I, Section 19 of the California Constitution. This constitutional provision also allows for government condemnation of private property for “public purposes” and requires “just compensation.”
Controversies arise over what constitutes a public use and, of course, what “just compensation” is.
The most questionable acts of eminent domain occur when private property is condemned for purposes of generating new economic activity. For example, condemning a private farm and then selling the land to a shopping center developer. The farmer is deprived of his farming activities and the developer profits from his real estate activities. Assuming “just compensation” was paid, where is the public purpose? And why should the farmer be disadvantaged in favor of the developer?
In a land that values private property, individual rights and equality, it is easy to see why the transaction described above raises significant questions. This type of transaction is too complex to discuss here.
There are other examples of eminent domain that are clearer: transactions that serve public purposes and seek to benefit society as a whole.
And, as important, those transactions that do not place individual rights at a significant disadvantage.
The current Gold Line proposed condemnation of property for the Maintenance and Operations (M&O) Facility in Monrovia is such a case.
The public purpose is clear.
Traffic congestion on the 210 Freeway, environmental issues and affordable transportation are among the rationales for construction of a light rail system.
The right-of-way for the entire extension is already owned by the Gold Line and follows the existing freight tracks to San Bernardino County.
L.A. Metro, the agency that is charged with operating the regional light rail system, has mandated the building of an M&O facility that will not only serve the Gold Line but will also serve a regional light rail system.
The chosen location is the closest possible site to the rest of L.A. County’s system. Again, the public purpose is indisputable.
Now we come to the issue of, “just compensation.” Half of the 28 acres required for the Gold Line are owned by the Monrovia Redevelopment Agency and it is a willing seller at a negotiated price.
Other property owners have also agreed to sell at negotiated prices.
One property owner has insisted on a price that is four times the appraised value of his property. It is this property owner that has caused the “resolution of necessity,” which is the first step in the condemnation process.
Our laws allow for taking of property for “public purposes” and require the payment of, “just compensation”. This means not only paying a fair price for the property, but also paying relocation costs; it does not mean paying an exorbitant price for the acquisition.
Fair compensation is the aspect of eminent domain that is least talked about and is the least recognized component of the process. “Compensation” is a given; “Fair” is the critical word and it must be fair to all parties – including, if not especially, the taxpayers!