A Bit of California Eminent Domain History

Don’t miss an op-ed in today’s LA Times, David K. Randall, Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2016, at p. A27, entitled Is It Possible to Save Paradise? Though badly slanted in favor of the environmentalist point of view — of the what’s-yours-is-ours variety — it does tell the story of May Rindge, the tough-minded 19th century lady who owned Rancho Malibu, stretching along the Pacific coast from Santa Monica to the Ventura county line. Her land was coveted by others, “homesteaders,” as the Times puts it; actually, armed trespassers who sought to invade her land, and whom she repelled using her armed guards.

Eventually, the County of LA sought to put a road through her land and condemned a right of way for it. Ms. Rindge resisted the taking in court on two grounds: lack of public use and lack of statutorily required public necessity. The first defense was based on the argument that since the road came to an abrupt end at the Ventura County line, it was a proverbial road to nowhere and thus not a public use since it couldn’t be used by the public to get anywhere. It didn’t fly. It was enough, held SCOTUS, that the public could drive on that road back and forth and enjoy the view.

AS for public necessity, argued Ms. Rindge, that feature of that road to nowhere rendered it unnecessary and thus violative of the public necessity statute. But she didn’t get to make that argument on the merits because the California public necessity statute also provided that if the resolution was passed by a specified supermajority (as this one was), it was conclusive. The court rejected Ms. Rindge’s argument by upholding California’s right to adopt such a statute without thereby violating Due Process.

Of course, this is a Los Angeles Times story, so you cannot rely on its accuracy on this subject. The LA Times story says that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled  that the public “had the right to access beautiful places.” Of course, the Court said no such thing. It held that the county had the right to acquire a right of way for what is now known as the Pacific Coast Highway, using the power of  eminent domain. Which is to say, if “the public” wanted to enjoy the ride, it would have to pay just compensation for the taking of the right of way.

If you don’t believe us, here are the issues presented to and decided by the US Supreme Court (Rindge Co. v. County of Los Angeles, 262 U.S. 700 (1923):

“The two fundamental questions involved are whether the uses for which these lands have been taken are public uses authorized by law; and whether the taking was necessary to such uses.”

Nothing about “beautiful places” — the right to take would have been the same if the subject property had been butt-ugly.

Anyway, it’s a great story from the old West and we can see a movie made of it, with Barbra Stanwyck playing May Rindge.

Today, Malibu is a playground of the seriously rich whose pursuit is to keep everybody else out. They personify that grand old poem that goes:

“We thank thee, Lord, for thy good grace, in bringing us to this beautiful place. And now, Dear Lord, show us the way to keep all others far away.”