San Clemente Coastal Foundation wins lawsuit over eminent domain

How an ‘ancient landslide’ keeps threatening a railroad, homes in San Clemente

When the California Coastal Foundation found itself in a bind with the city of San Clemente over eminent domain, it was forced to put on a show of strength. The nonprofit group was trying to obtain a 527-acre parcel of land — the former site of a steel plant, now an apartment complex — on behalf of the city, but no action was taken.

As the foundation fought to protect a land it would use to extend Interstate 5 on the former site, it needed a win in court. The state court agreed with the nonprofit’s argument that the Coastal Act gives nonprofit organizations free-speech rights to use eminent domain for legitimate purposes.

“If we’re going to have a nonprofit or a public interest organization making a public interest argument, which this is, then the Coastal Act protects the rights of both,” said Matthew Dukes, a lawyer with the California Coastal Law Center.

While there have been many lawsuits filed over eminent domain seizures, most have been based on the idea that cities could take a huge parcel of land for a commercial purpose and hold it for years until a buyer found a use for it that satisfied their vision.

The real estate law group led a large lawsuit in 2010 in Sacramento over a similar seizure of land for a new residential neighborhood in San Juan Capistrano, but it was dismissed by a federal judge who said it didn’t have standing in the action.

But the new lawsuit, filed Wednesday in San Mateo County Superior Court, claims the city illegally seized the land and held on to it for years before buying the property, making the nonprofit group the victim of a “sliding scale of abuse.”

The suit claims San Clemente’s acquisition of the land was an illegal seizure of private property, so it should not use eminent domain for an alleged public benefit, such as the expansion of a rail corridor.

“The city seized this property for an alleged public benefit and allowed it to be sitting there for 20 years,” said lawyer Michael O’Mara. “We are not claiming that San Clemente did not have a reasonable basis for its acquisition of the property, but they simply failed to show it to the public commission.”

The nonprofit group’s attorney, Timothy M. White, said the city was

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