A Bit of California Eminent Domain History

We recommend an article by Larry Stevens, in the July/August 2011 issue of RIGHT OF WAY magazine, entitled What Constitutes a Public Use?, at p. 22. It’s the story of the Homeric battle of May Rindge, owner of the old Rancho Malibu, located at the northern edge of Los Angeles County, and stretching for over 20 miles along the coast, to  defeat a taking by the County of Los Angeles, for what became known as the Pacific Coast Highway .

The problem was that at the time there was nothing there, except the Rindge land, so travelers on the new highway could only drive up and down the coast to the road’s dead end at the Ventura County line. They could not get off that road because all the surrounding land was owned by the Rancho and Mrs. Rindge was not about to allow any trespasser to set foot on her land. She meant it. The right-of-way was fenced off from the Rancho and patrolled by shotgun-wielding riders. The courts held that even though the road’s utility to the public was limted, this was sufficient to satisfy the “public use” constitutional requirement.

Since the new road was public (even though it was a road to nowhere) Mrs. Rindge defended against the taking on the grounds of lack of necessity required by a state statue. But California law at the time made a condemnor’s  determination of necessity conclusive, so she argued that denying her the chance to demonstrate a lack of necessity was a denial of due process. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Rindge Co. v. County of Los Angeles, 262 U.S. 700 (1923).

It’s quite a story, and we recommend that you read Mr. Stevens’ article for yourself. In the end, after over a decade of contentious litigation, Mrs. Rindge was paid $107,289 on her demand for $9,180,000.

And as for California law of necessity, it only got worse when in People v. Chevalier, 52 Cal.2d  299, 340 P.2d 598 (1959) the California Supreme Court held that necessity for condemnation was not subject to judicial review and was altogether nonjusticiable, even when the resolution of necessity was procured through fraud, bad faith or abuse of discretion. This extremist judicial interpretation of the statute remained in place until 1976 when the California Legislature repealed the Chevalier holding, and instead passed Cal. Code Civil Proc. Sec. 1245.255 (2)(b), providing that the resolution of necessity is not conclusive when its “adoption or contents were influenced or affected by gross abuse of discretion by the [condemnor’s] governing body.” Also, the legislature provided that the resolution of necessity does not meet legal requirements when it is procured by bribery of a member of the condemnor’s governing body.  Cal.  Code C ivil Proc. Sec. 1245.270.

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