Defend Our Cities-Vote No on Prop 98

Sunday, May 4, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle

The best that can be said of Prop. 98 is that it is poorly drafted. Supporters of 98 like to portray it as an attempt to defend our homes against the prospect of a hostile takeover through eminent domain. If that were the case, the measure would be carefully tailored to accomplish its stated purpose. It is not. It goes further. Much further.

Prop. 98 is disingenuous and dangerous. It threatens to wreak havoc on the ability to achieve collective goals throughout the state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. Dianne Feinstein all oppose 98 out of a concern that it could imperil this state's ability to assure an adequate water supply for the future. A Coastal Commission analysis warns that it could undermine efforts to protect the coast and keep it accessible to the public.

The president of the California League of Conservation voters said "a wide array of environmental regulations" could be threatened by passage of Prop. 98. The director of the League of California Cities called it "a very, very broad prescription against the use of eminent domain" that could wipe out, among other things, local governments' efforts to compel developers to build affordable housing.

In other words, this benign-sounding measure that is being advertised as a way to protect your home could end up undermining the environmental and neighborhood regulations that add to your quality of life - and help sustain your property's value.

"This measure has tentacles that are going to reach out and challenge a wide array of public works projects," said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities.

The ostensible purpose for Prop. 98 is the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision against Susette Kelo, a Connecticut homeowner who was trying to fight off government efforts to seize her house for a redevelopment project. That high court ruling, which upheld the ability of a government to shift private property from one owner to another for broadly defined public purposes, created widespread outrage, and for good reason. No one would want his or her home or farm to be seized against his or her will just so a local government can reap the sales and property-tax bounty of a Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

Prop. 98 clearly precludes that possibility. It expressly prohibits the use of eminent domain for the transfer of property for private use.

But that is just the start. It also prohibits any new rent-control laws - and begins the phaseout of such laws in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Los Angeles and Santa Monica. It would wipe out rent-control laws on mobile-home parks in more than 100 cities and counties. Supporters of Prop. 98 - who have received the bulk of their financial support from landlords - suggest that abolition of rent control is a logical extension of eminent domain reform. We regard it as a stretch - an overreach, to be precise.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst has determined that Prop. 98's restrictions on regulation of a property's sale price could abolish laws (now existing in about a third of the state's cities and counties) that require the inclusion of lower-cost housing in new developments.

Then there is the most potentially sweeping clause of Prop. 98: Its prohibition on laws or regulations that "transfer economic benefit to one or more private persons at the expense of the private owner." Opponents of 98 warn that this provision could be used to attack myriad laws that restrict land use or protect land, air and water resources. At the very least, 98 is an invitation to lawsuits - with us, the taxpayers, bearing the burden.

A much more straightforward approach to eminent domain reform is the alternative, Prop. 99, which would declare quite clearly that an owner-occupied single-family residence could not be seized for transfer to another private party. It has no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives, far less risk of unintended consequences.

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