It’s time to knock out National City, California’s eminent domain abuse

Nick Sibilla | Writer, Institute for Justice

A working-class gym helps inner-city kids stay out of gangs and fight childhood obesity. It’s a success story that should be celebrated. But in National City, California, the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) was declared blighted, along with 691 other properties.

Officials there want to use the power of eminent domain and bulldoze a youth gym.

Ever since it began as a backyard boxing ring, the CYAC has helped more than 1,000 kids and teens since 1991. Today, the gym trains and tutors dozens of at-risk youth, completely free of charge. Even more are on the waiting list.

Thanks to grants from UPS and the Barona Band of Mission Indians, the CYAC was able to expand, transforming a gun store into a 3,500 square foot community center in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of San Diego. Teens who would have joined gangs and become enticed by a life of crime are now going to college and becoming police officers.

But if National City had its way, this inspiring “little platoon” would be down for the count. In 2007, the city council approved a new redevelopment plan, labeling the CYAC and almost 700 other properties as “blighted.”  As this video makes clear, the CYAC and nearby homes are not slums. Even more appalling, National City has been “blighting” properties since 1969. Two-thirds of the city actually has been declared “blighted” for over three decades.

National City keeps itself under a blight designation to be able to use eminent domain to transfer property to private developers for economic development.  In 2005, National City promised the CYAC’s land to a developer who wanted to build luxury condos after kicking the kids out.

Yet the CYAC is not going down without a fight.

The gym has teamed with the Institute for Justice, a public interest property rights law firm, to sue National City. On Thursday, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal will hear oral arguments in what will be the latest battle over this abuse of redevelopment powers. Back in 2011, National City lost big time. The trial court found the city not only failed to prove blight actually existed, but held that National City violated both a California freedom of information law and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Sadly, the CYAC hasn’t been the only victim of attempted land grabs and bureaucratic bullying in the Golden State. Redevelopment agencies in California were notorious for wasting taxpayers’ money on boondoggles. The Institute for Justice documented more than 200 cases of eminent domain for private gain in California alone over the past decade alone.

In San Diego, a renowned cigar bar was seized to build a new Marriott. But the hotel never materialized and a once-thriving business is now a parking lot. Over in Sacramento, a nightclub, a pizzeria, a and “mermaid bar” “where costumed men and women swim in the giant fish tank above the bar,”  all received over $5 million from that city’s redevelopment agency. So it’s no wonder redevelopment agencies racked up $30 billion in debt.

Thankfully, the California Legislature abolished the state’s almost 400 redevelopment agencies in 2011, which was the main condemner of private property. Later that year, the California Supreme Court upheld their dissolution as constitutional.

Yet politicians, realtors and municipal groups are determined to bring back eminent domain for private gain. California’s Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has twice introduced a bill that would have partially revived redevelopment. In 2012, the first bill overwhelmingly passed the state legislature, but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Steinberg’s second attempt for the most unnecessary reboot since The Lone Ranger will be back on the agenda when the state legislature reconvenes in January.

A decision for the CYAC would set an important precedent in favor of property rights in California.

Nick Sibilla is a writer for the Institute for Justice.

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