Facts on the Ground

Eminent domain for dummies

In 2001 Willard Eisner was approached by the San Joaquin Board of Education about selling a 36,000-square-foot chunk of his 96,000-square-foot parcel of commercial land in Stockton, California. He wasn't using the area in question, and board officials wanted space for a new 100-student high school. "I said, 'I'm not sure we want to sell it,'" Eisner recalls, "and they said, 'Well, we'll use eminent domain.'" So he sold, for an appraised market value of around $280,000, and considered his interaction with government land grabbers finished. It wasn't.

In August 2003 Eisner, a retired businessman who lives in Fresno, came back from a vacation in Hawaii to find an odd message on his voice mail: The school builders had botched the job, mistakenly building on 10,000 square feet of his property, an area that the car dealership to which he leases the land had used for auto detailing. The board's proposed remedy for this grievous error: legalizing the land grab through yet more eminent domain. "They expected us to absolve the mistake," Eisner says. "They would just pay us for the land, and that would be the end of it."

Worse, the board kept building on the forbidden land, even after it knew the construction was illegal. When the city finally shut down construction, Eisner's lawyer asked for the right to tear down the protruding bit, and a local judge eventually issued restraining orders to both sides. Officials, instead of being chastened, were indignant. "If there's somebody running around the community who wants to tear down much-needed schools," county schools office spokesman Trent Allen told The Record newspaper, "that's their prerogative."

On December 10, the Board of Education voted 4-1 to seize the property for the market-appraised value of $165,000. Eisner was demanding $270,000 and said the next day that he hoped to reach a settlement soon.

Eisner still doesn't object to eminent domain as such. "If it's done properly, then I have no qualms with it," he says. "But you just don't make a mistake and say, 'Well, we made a mistake, so we'll fix it through eminent domain.'"

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