Every once in a while a case comes along that calls to mind the adage that “just because you can think it doesn’t mean you should say it.” The Second District Court of Appeal’s July 30, 2020 eminent domain decision in Rutgard v. City of Los Angeles, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2020) (Case No. B297655) is one of those cases.

Among several notable examples demonstrating the ongoing relevance of that adage, the Court in Rutgard described the City of Los Angeles as having “blown” California’s statutory requirement that if property acquired by eminent domain is not used for its intended public use within 10 years of adopting the resolution of necessity the entity must allow the original property owner an opportunity to buy it back unless the entity’s governing body adopts a new resolution reauthorizing the existing stated public use (Code Civ. Proc. § 1245.245). The Court also characterized one of the City’s arguments as “frivolous” and explained that certain of its cited legal authority was so “cherry-picked” as to be “unhelpful.”

The case involved Los Angeles’ condemnation of an 8,300 square foot commercial building to serve as a “constituent service center” for City residents. The City never developed the center, however, as a result of the recession in the late 2000s. The City adopted its reauthorization resolution 19 days past the 10 year deadline established in the Eminent Domain Law (Code Civ. Proc. § 1230.010 et seq.). The City argued that the law imposes no time limit on its adoption of a reauthorization resolution because the 10-year deadline sets the time period during which it must fail to put the condemned property to public use and not the time period for enacting a reauthorization resolution and even if the statute requires the City to adopt a reauthorization resolution within 10 years of adopting the original resolution a resolution is adopted on the date it becomes effective.

The Court explained that the 10-year deadline was intended to ensure that public entities do not use their eminent domain power to acquire a property and then fail to put that property to a public use. And the Court saw the City’s approach as rendering the law a guideline rather than a deadline, holding that there is no basis for fashioning such a “meet it if you feel like it” deadline either from the text or legislative history of the statute. The Court also held that the end of the 10-year clock is the date that a public entity finally adopts its resolution, as defined by local law rather than a one-size-fits-all state definition of “final adoption.”

Rutgard is a solid property rights case that is grounded in the requirements of state condemnation law while recognizing the language of local law. Because the City’s reauthorization resolution was not “adopted” within 10 years of the initial resolution it is untimely and the City is obligated to sell the property and give the original landowner a right of first refusal.