Domain services

What is Eminent Domain? – The Santa Barbara Independent

Q: Marsha, I tracked the city of Santa Barbara’s use of eminent domain in a property in the 2700 block of De la Vina. Is it legal? How can a government agency just condemn and take private property?

A: Strange as it may sound, it is legal and is actually part of the United States Constitution. Eminent domain is the legal right of a government to take private property for public use. This governmental power was established in the original Bill of Rights of the Constitution. It is known as the “taking clause” in the Fifth Amendment, which also states “…and private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The revenue clause states that the government can only use this power when it benefits the public. It is fair compensation language that creates the bulk of eminent domain disputes and lawsuits.

Eminent domain and our current definition of this clause have been refined by decades of legal action. What is “public use” and what defines “fair compensation?” The framers of our Constitution left these concepts vague. This has allowed the clause to evolve and be defined by the times it is used.

In Santa Barbara, recent use of eminent domain has been for public safety and waterways. The use of eminent domain with De la Vina properties involves Mission Creek and public safety. Unfortunately most of the time Mission Creek is dry. However, when it’s raining and Mission Creek is raging, it can be extremely dangerous.

There are many bridges that cross Mission Creek on the creek’s journey to the Pacific Ocean. City Council voted May 17 to begin eminent domain seizure of four properties in the 2700 block of De la Vina. The century-old bridges over the upper Vina are unsafe and must be replaced for the public good.

Mission Creek has been a focus of the Santa Barbara City Council for some time. In a November 2014 article by Santa Barbara Independent, Nick Welsh reported that in 2009 the City of Santa Barbara entered into negotiations with Virginia Castagnola-Hunter to begin construction on her waterfront property, formerly the family restaurant Lobster House. This involved building a new bridge over Cabrillo Boulevard across Mission Creek. In 2014, the City voted to initiate eminent domain proceedings to acquire the property. Negotiations stalled on the issue of fair price and compensation. Until the question of value is resolved, the owner has authorized the start of the bridge construction project.

Unfortunately, there are examples where governments have not used the property taken for the public good.

In the 1950s, Los Angeles seized Chavez Ravine from a community of about 1,800 rural and mostly low-income Latino families. The Chavez Ravine families formed a community of landlords, churches, stores and parks. The city said it wanted to use a federally funded urban renewal project and build public housing for low-income people. Evicted families were promised first choice of apartments. This never happened and the families had to find their own accommodation.

Chavez Ravine was razed and all residents evicted. For various political reasons, public housing was never built. The vacant lot was eventually sold to the Dodgers; Dodger Stadium today occupies Chavez Ravine. Even then there was considerable public resistance to purchase for private use. Many have argued that the seized land should be for public use, such as a zoo or a park.

Hopefully, today’s checks and balances on eminent domain law work to prevent such government abuses.

Marsha Gray has worked in Santa Barbara real estate for over 25 years. She works at Allyn & Associates, where she helps clients buy and sell homes and with loan services. To read more of Marsha’s Q&A articles, visit Contact Marsha at (805) 252-7093 or

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