Friday, September 20, 2013

Take That!


Talk about the bleeping arrogance of government. The Southern California city of Perris -- yes, pronounced like Paris, but much dustier than the real one -- takes the cake.

And we mean “take.”

It came to light in a recent case of “eminent domain” -- a couple of dirty words to regular folks. The city decided to build a road across part of a ten-acre vacant lot zoned for light industrial use and owned by a guy named Stamper and his partners. We’ll call them the “Stamper Boys.”

Well, the city (we’ll call them the “City Gang”) moved to “take” the two acres of land it needed for its road under eminent domain proceedings in Riverside County Superior Court. You know what eminent domain is, right? That’s when government takes your land for public projects and pays you something so that it doesn’t look like stealing.

In this case the City Gang offered the Stamper Boys $54,800 -- take it or leave it. The City Gang based the price of the two acres for the road on the vacant land’s value for growing crops. The Stamper Boys, if we may carrying the farming metaphor further, indicated the city was out of its gourd; that the land was zoned to build a factory and worth upwards of $512,000. (They hadn’t just fallen off the turnip truck, you know.)

They soundly argued that the land should be valued at its highest use as industrial property -- its current zoning, which, after all, had been set by the city.

But, what happens when you push a bully back? Like any street thug, the City Gang pulled out a Smith & Wesson in the form of a legal document. They said no matter what the Stamper Boys argued, the city of Perris would never approve the building of a factory on the remaining eight acres owned by the Stamper Boys without first requiring that the two acres the city wanted for the road remain undeveloped until the city built its road. At that point, the city would “take” the land anyways.

Does the concept of extortion come to mind? In brief, the City Gang had the Stamper Boys by their legal short hairs.

The case went to court and a two-pronged process was approved by a Riverside County judge. First he would hear evidence and rule on the constitutionality of the eminent domain “taking.” Then, a jury would be called to determine the amount of money the City Gang had to fork over to the Stamper Boys.

In the first court phase, the judge joined the City Gang, ruling in its favor. As a result, the Stamper Boys surrendered, agreeing to accept only $44,000 for their land, without going to a jury. Why did they capitulate? Because the judge ruled that the jury would have to determine the price of the land on its agricultural value and not on its zoned value for a factory. Essentially the judge tied the hands of jurors, giving them little wiggle room on the dollar amount.

The Stamper Boys rightly appealed, saying the land-taking was unconstitutional.

Recently a California court of appeal weighed in, overturning the case. They sent it back for a jury trial, saying that regular folks should decide whether the City Gang could rustle up the land, and if so, how much they’d pay, while noting the judge “erroneously usurped the role of the jury.”

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