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Mira Mesa: Eminent Domain Update

In Mira Mesa, many people hold their real property in a revocable living trust. This is to protect their beneficiaries from probate fees and costs and to try and insure privacy in the distribution of their estate. In the below case [not from Mira Mesa] homes were taken from people without their consent and this affected their estate plan. Our firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP would be pleased to offer you a complimentary and confidential consultation either by phone, in person or e mail.

In one of the most controversial eminent domain decisions ever, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a city’s exercise of its eminent domain powers to take private property in furtherance of an economic development plan satisfied the constitutional requirement that such power be used only for a “public use,” even though private developers stood to profit handsomely from the city’s actions. In reaction to that ruling, some state legislatures have been busy crafting legislation to limit the use of condemnation powers in such circumstances. For their part, the owners of property targeted for condemnation have considered how they still might fend off the taking, or, failing that, how to maximize the compensation that the government must pay.

In a recent case, a landowner was not able to defeat a condemnation initiated by a city so that a new hotel could be built on the property, but he did receive maximum compensation from an obviously sympathetic jury. The landowner was an immigrant who had spent two years and a lot of money renovating a warehouse and building a mail-order cigar business. When two private developers were unsuccessful in negotiations to buy the property as a site for a hotel, they instead reached an agreement with the city whereby the city would condemn the property for their desired use and the developers would pay the costs and fees associated with the condemnation.

When the city was first attempting to buy the property, it sent the landowner a toxic waste notice requiring him to investigate whether any toxins existed in the ground. The landowner tried to comply, but after spending many thousands of dollars he found no toxins. The city would later admit in the litigation that such an investigation was not really feasible so long as a building remained on the property. The toxic waste notice, and especially its suspicious timing, came to be seen as a tactic to put pressure on the landowner during the negotiations leading up to the condemnation.

Although the trial court ruled that the city could condemn the land for the hotel, in the subsequent trial before a jury for damages, the landowner fared much better. The jury awarded him the entire amount he had sought. The award included several million dollars each for the value of the property itself and for the loss of the goodwill associated with the cigar business. Damages for loss of a business are not typical in condemnation cases, but the landowner was able to show that there was no suitable alternative location for the business, so that he would have to start over from scratch. For good measure, the jury also awarded damages equal to the cost of the dubious toxicity study that the landowner had been forced to undertake.

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