On his way out the door, President Obama declared as national monuments 1.35 million acres of federal land in Utah and 300,000 acres near Gold Butte, Nevada, a state where the federal government owns nearly 90 percent of the land. According to the New York Times, these moves were to “protect” the lands from development and “nail down” the president’s environmental legacy.
Out west, some decried this move as the latest federal land grab, but all Americans might turn attention to California. Golden State Gov. Jerry Brown has empowered a different kind of land grab that poses a stronger threat to property rights.
As mayor of Oakland, Brown supported redevelopment, but, in his second coming as governor, he eliminated redevelopment agencies during a budget crunch. The Legislature, in constant pursuit of more money to spend, duly restored redevelopment and passed Assembly Bill 2492. Last year, Brown signed the measure, a militant surge in the abuse of eminent domain, a concept Donald Trump has said is “wonderful.”
Eminent domain gives government power to take private property for public use—roads, parks, bridges, schools and so forth—in return for “just compensation.” The California legislation, in the style of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo v. City of New London ruling, allows governments to grab property and hand it over even to private developers.
For purposes of comparison, President Obama set out to protect more than a million acres in Utah and Nevada from development. Imagine if the president had transferred the property rights to some politically connected interest group, who then filled the land with casinos, theme parks and mansions.
In California, as a San Francisco Chronicle headline put it, “your home can be their castle.” The new legislation does this by making it easier to tag areas as “blighted,” and therefore target them for the property grab. According to the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights, more than two-thirds of California’s landmass, a full 121,000 square miles, stands at risk of condemnation.
This means that private homes and mom-and-pop independent businesses will be razed for some political insider’s condo or business project. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent to the Kelo decision, “the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
A spike in eminent domain takings should not be a surprise in a state that has already institutionalized hostility to property rights. For example, an unelected Coastal Commission of regulatory zealots trashes property rights and overrides scores of elected city and county governments on land-use issues.
The Commission started on Brown’s first watch during the 1970s, and, on his glide path to departure in 2018, he has made no effort to curtail it. Indeed, the governor approved legislation that empowered the Commission to bypass the courts and impose fines directly.
In 1978, Gov. Brown opposed Proposition 13, which placed limits on property taxes. After the measure passed in a landslide, Brown proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter.” He now supports the highest income and sales taxes in state history.
In similar style, Brown has changed his position on redevelopment and become a born-again land grabber. For all his wrath against Donald Trump, California’s recurring governor has signed legislation that will empower predatory developers to thrive as never before. That is the stuff of which corruption legacies are made.