LONG BEACH, Calif. (BP)–After a long stretch of intense negotiations, the members of Filipino Baptist Fellowship in Long Beach, Calif., are claiming a victory now that the city’s redevelopment agency has terminated its efforts to acquire their church building through eminent domain.
“They’re ecstatic. They’ve got their church, they can conduct their ministry. Right now the gun of condemnation has been removed from their heads,” John Eastman, the church’s attorney, said.
Though he is satisfied with the outcome of the ordeal, Eastman said he will continue to be wary of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency’s actions because not all matters were resolved.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that once the dust settles, eventually they’ll come back and seek to condemn the property again,” Eastman, director of The Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, told Baptist Press. “But for now they’ve pretty strongly committed themselves that they don’t have the authority to proceed with the condemnation.”
Strife over the church building’s future began nearly four years ago when city leaders began negotiating with church members to purchase the property to make way for condominiums, but it escalated in March when the city voted to seize the building under eminent domain.
The path for the case was laid when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last summer in Kelo v. New London, Connecticut that a city’s use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another may qualify as a “public use” protected by the Constitution.
During a meeting March 27, the redevelopment board voted unanimously to let the church keep its property, but Eastman was not pleased with the way the proceedings took place, and he requested that the board go through proper legal channels to ensure the safety of the church property.
Eastman went before the board April 24 to ask that a letter from the city attorney assuring the church of the halt in condemnation proceedings be introduced into the formal hearing record at the meeting.
“We were not on the agenda. I just utilized my two minutes that are allowed in the public comment section,” Eastman said. “I was pleased with the receptiveness in the facial expressions that I received from members of the redevelopment board. I reminded them that however important redevelopment is, the protection of property rights is not only constitutionally mandated but it’s even more important. And they seemed receptive of that. Whether that receptivity bears out against staff recommendations to condemn property in the future remains to be seen.”
One of the lingering matters Eastman said could mean trouble in the future for the church is that the city will not grant the congregation a Certificate of Conformance for the property in order to more fully ensure that the building meets local standards and will not be demolished for alternative gain.
“If they issued a Certificate of Conformance, it’s a much more complicated process to extricate themselves from that than it would be currently,” Eastman said.
Also, Eastman asked in a letter to the city attorney that the church be officially removed from the city’s redevelopment zone, but he has not heard from the attorney and does not expect that action will be taken.
For now, the church is calling the outcome a victory, and they hope they’ll get to keep their building for many years to come. Eastman told BP he believes eminent domain issues with churches are going to continue as long as local governments have the power to seize property. The Claremont Institute will keep active its website for the cause, www.handsoffourchurch.com, and will update it with similar cases that arise throughout the country, Eastman said.
“We think it’s an important issue and it’s going to remain an important issue,” he said.