In California, as in other states, the issue of eminent domain is an area of conflict between the government and property owners. While most eminent domain cases settle without issue, some become bigger clashes that highlight the potential for injustice in the government’s ability to take and repurpose legally owned property with little oversight or recourse for the original owners.
The case of Bruce’s Beach
Bruce’s Beach was a small resort and collection of houses owned by the Bruce family, one of the early African-American families to move to the California coast and buy property. As the town around them became more prosperous and more white, the other residents tried to use various tactics to remove them from their land. This culminated in an eminent domain case where the city government gave the Bruces pennies on the dollar and forced them off their land. Today, that land is prime waterfront real estate worth tens of millions of dollars, and the Bruces don’t own any of it.
Eminent domain is written so that governments can take control of land for important reasons, like expanding sidewalks or adding utilities, as well as public works that will benefit everyone, like parks. But the Bruce’s Beach story shows that eminent domain can also be used as a weapon that can remove property from people that the local majority does not like. A legal challenge to eminent domain can help resolve the issue by stopping the case or increasing the compensation.
Eminent domain has a checkered history, and many of its applications have not fit the intended purpose of the system as it was written.