July 1, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Supreme Trouble for Property Owners in National City

By Ted Godshalk

This weekend we celebrate the foremost patriotic holiday in this country. The Fourth of July is a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In that year the American colonies, with a recently forged confederation, called out King George III of England for his oppressive tyranny, heavy-handed manipulation of colonial governing bodies, and unfair taxation. The Declaration’s eloquent author Thomas Jefferson and the other 55 patriots asserted their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The war that followed lasted five years, was fought across the soil of the colonies, and cost many lives on both sides. On October 19, 1781 England surrendered and peace was negotiated. Six years later the Constitution was adopted, and ten years after that, the Bill of Rights was added.

This important series of events began an astounding 230 years ago, but just last week the Constitution and Bill of Rights were challenged when the United States Supreme Court ruled on a case concerning eminent domain. This important case originates across the nation in New London, Connecticut where developers are trying to use city redevelopment condemnation to bulldoze 15 homes for a new hotel and office tower. Shockingly, the Supreme Court did not stop the condemnation. Three Republican-appointed and two Democrat-appointed Justices ignored the wisdom of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits taking private property for vague and unproven “public” use. Without a doubt, this eminent domain issue has a chilling effect on our nation and our community.

In National City, we have seen our City Council wrestle with this issue for over one full year. In the initial step, the Community Development Commission (hereafter just called the Corporation) started to study the possibility of taking more property from small business owners and residents. First out of the block in the resistance to this misguided idea were the homeowners in Old Town National City who have memories of the decades-long attempt by the City to displace them from their homes and turn their neighborhood into a cinderblock industrial zone. The City Council reacted to their protests in early 2004 by removing property that is used for residential use from this new land grab.

The situation simmered until at the September 21st and October 5th (2004) meetings when the three council members tasked with deciding the fate of the eminent domain expansion listened to much testimony from concerned residents and business owners. Over 250 people have consistently attended these meetings. The community was overwhelmingly against eminent domain at this stage of the game, so the council voted to take no action until after the November election. It was on November 15th that we witnessed the haphazardly planned “public workshop” which collapsed under its own ineptitude when the Corporation made no attempt to answer any of the questions asked by the public. On December 7th, the Corporation held the infamous Saturday meeting at Granger Hall that yielded six hours of public input but elicited not one single bit of analysis. Community members, including myself, were starting to grow incensed over the lack of consideration at this point.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence could not have imagined a city government creating a corporation in order to seize a piece of private property to give to another corporation. Thomas Jefferson’s spirit must be looking down in disgust at the games being played by those politicians today who move around in haste to curry the favor of developers. In part two of this commentary, the latest meetings on eminent domain will be detailed and we will look at the solution that could restore hope for National City’s property owners.

(The next scheduled meetings on this issue are July 19 and 26. Part two of this commentary runs in two weeks.)

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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