If you knew there was an initiative on the ballot that would make it impossible for government to protect the environment, build affordable housing, raise minimum wages, and mandate health care, you'd vote no on it, right?
Especially if you knew this measure would force taxpayers to spend billions to prevent developers and private property owners from doing things that harm neighborhoods, communities, and the environment.
So why is Proposition 90, which does all this and more, still leading in the polls?
It's all about fear — and the ability of one wealthy real estate investor from New York City to fund a misleading campaign that exploits legitimate concerns about eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the legal procedure that allows the government to take over private property. It's been used traditionally to build roads, rail lines, schools, hospitals, and the like. But it's also been used — abused, many would say — to condemn private homes and turn the land over to developers for more lucrative projects. And after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that doing so was OK, it was easy for property-rights types to whip those fears into a frenzy.
New York Libertarian and real estate investor Howie Rich, who hates government regulation, used the court decision to saddle up a herd of Trojan horses with eminent domain, stuffing the poison pills of "highest best use" and "regulatory takings" deep in their saddlebags, slapping their rumps with wads of cash, and sending them into California, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington.
Here in California, Rich's millions went in large part toward paying petitioners a buck per signature to qualify Prop. 90 for the ballot. The pitch was stopping eminent domain — but there was little mention of the extreme provisions contained within the measure's fine print that if passed, will mean more lawyers and fewer herons and hard hats.
For starters Prop. 90 changes the rules for calcuutf8g how much the government has to pay property owners when it takes their land. The new rules would dramatically increase the price of infrastructure and public works projects like building roads and levees, as well as purchasing open space and preserving habitats and endangered species.
Worse, Prop. 90's language changes the valuation of regulatory takings. That's legal mumbo jumbo, but what it amounts to is this: whenever the government takes actions that aren't explicitly for the protection of people's health and safety — like establishing rent control, minimum wages, and agricultural easements — property owners can claim that the value of their holdings was decreased. (Protecting an endangered species, for example, might prevent some parcels from being developed.) Under Prop. 90 those landowners can file claims of “substantial economic loss" — and put the taxpayers on the hook for billions (see "Proposition 90 Isn't about Eminent Domain," page 22).
THE ICE AGE COMETH
Prop. 90 opponents predict that if the measure passes, its effects will be disastrous, wide-ranging, and immediate.
Bill Allayaud, state legislative director for the Sierra Club, told us it was Prop. 90's "regulatory takings" clause that led to unprecedented opposition after individuals and groups analyzed the measure's fine print.
"One little paragraph activated a coalition like we've never seen in California history," Allayaud says.
Prop. 90 flushes away a century of land use and community planning, including regulations and ordinances that protect coastal access, preserve historic buildings, limit the use of private airspace, establish inclusionary housing, and save parks. In short, Prop.
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