We’ve written extensively about negative developments in California eminent domain use over the years, but today we filed this comment letter with the California Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a positive reform attempt, SB 1167.
SB 1167 would require governments to issue a final offer of compensation whenever they initiate condemnation actions to take private property for public use. If the landowner challenges the action in court and the final offer is less than 85% of the eventual amount awarded, the government will also be required to pay attorney’s fees.
This law would discourage the government practices of “lowballing” and “sandbagging” offers to landowners who lack the resources to challenge an eminent domain action. The people most affected by those practices are often those with the most to lose when their property is taken–historically marginalized communities and lower-income landowners.
Creating a statutory grant of attorney’s fees for unreasonably low offers will incentivize government to make a realistic compensation offer to landowners before taking their property. But when a government offer is still low, the law will also create an incentive for attorneys to represent landowners on a contingency basis.
SB 1167 will not cure all ills associated with eminent domain actions. And “just” market-rate offers often cannot fully compensate the loss of a cherished home or family business. However, discouraging lowballing and sandbagging could do much to alleviate concerns that governments are using their disparate power to coerce landowners into selling their property at rates far below what a fair market would provide.