A California county that tried to obtain three landfill sites through eminent domain has been rebuked by the courts. In February 2020, a Superior Court judge ruled that Inyo County violated the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act because it did not conduct an environmental review before implementing its plan to seize the land from Los Angeles. The county appealed the ruling, but to no avail. On Aug. 17, an appeals court affirmed the ruling and ordered the county to pay the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s legal costs. Experts say that the ruling could cost the county more than $2 million.
The sequence of events that led to the eminent domain lawsuit and ruling began in August 2017 when the Inyo County Board of Supervisors approved three resolutions that authorized action to take control of land owned by LADWP in the Owens Valley. LADWP argued against the resolutions and pointed out that the landfills the county had built on the land were unlined and could leech dangerous chemicals into the area’s groundwater. The utility provider also offered to sell the land to the county if proper environmental controls were put into place. The offer was rebuffed and the arguments ignored.
Inyo County officials may have been reluctant to conduct an environmental review because they feared the outcome. The county has a long and worrying history of flouting environmental regulations and has been issued thousands of permit violations for threatening the Owens Valley drinking water. Experts believe the ruling will likely put an end to the county’s efforts to obtain the land through the courts, and LADWP lawyers have already taken action to have the remaining eminent domain lawsuits dismissed.
This case reveals that government officials sometimes choose to pursue eminent domain lawsuits even when they have other options and their legal arguments are less than convincing. The eminent domain process allows government agencies to pursue infrastructure projects that benefit the community, but it does not give officials the right to seize property at will.