This land is your land -- No. Your land is their land

Debra J. Saunders

7/28/2005 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

A letter on the front of what used to be Revelli Tires in Oakland warns: "Eminent domain unfair. To learn all about the abuses of eminent domain, please go to www.castlecoaliton.org. Educate yourself. Pay attention. You could be next."

 John Revelli wrote the note after the city of Oakland evicted him on July 1 from his own property -- and a business run by his family since 1949 -- so that a private developer could build apartments on his land. It especially galls him, Revelli told me over the phone Tuesday, that while he has been forced away from his livelihood for weeks, Oakland hasn't done anything with his property. Go look at the building, he said, and the sign will still be there because the city hasn't touched anything. Sure enough, the sign was up on Tuesday night.

 Oakland also evicted Tony Fung, Revelli's next-door neighbor and the owner-operator of Autohouse on 20th Street. "I am a first-generation immigrant," Fung told me. "This is my American dream."

 To hell with Fung's dream -- the city of Oakland seized it, so that someone else can build on it. And without offering enough money for Fung to relocate his business, he says.

 The city has legions of lawyers to press its case, while Fung says he has to scrape together pennies to hire an attorney.

  "There's no way a small guy like me is able to fight that," Fung noted. He has lost his business, his property and the belief that private property is truly private in the United States. That last item -- belief in the system -- was destroyed in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that governments can seize private property to give it to private developers. Somehow, that sweetheart deal constitutes "public use" -- maybe because city government grows richer through increased tax revenue.

 That may explain why the Oakland City Council voted six-to-one to authorize this eminent-domain seizure. One vote and -- voila -- you see two small businessmen up against City Hall, the Big Bench and big developers. Talk about being outgunned.

 Dana Berliner, a lawyer for the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, which fights government eminent-domain overreach, argued that the California Supreme Court and state law don't bolster eminent-domain abuses. But: "The laws are routinely ignored because local governments know most people can't afford to fight them."

  "A constitutional amendment is the best way of protecting California citizens from tax-hungry local government and land-hungry developers," Berliner added. Please note: State Sen. Tom McClintock has drafted an amendment for just that purpose.

  Meanwhile, Revelli and Fung have lost their livelihoods.

 I plead guilty to gushing back in 1999 about Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to add 6,000 units of housing to the downtown area -- and with private money. I never dreamed, however, that Oakland would evict successful, blight-free businesses so that private developers could make more money.

 I called the offices of Council Members Jane Brunner and Ignacio De La Fuente, Mayor Jerry Brown, and some city officials connected with what is called the Uptown Project. I heard many reasons why various biggies couldn't talk to me.

 Brown -- to his credit -- did talk.

 "I know Revelli," said Brown. "He fixed my brakes, twice." Brown lives seven blocks away from Revelli's shop. He admitted that Autohouse and Revelli Tires are not blighted, but told of other buildings nearby that were crime-ridden and vermin-infested before the city pushed for redevelopment.

 "You cannot have a downtown with this kind of abandonment," said Brown. And: "There is a greater good here," in eradicating the blight and replacing it with homes.

  The mayor also made a pledge: "It's not easy, but I personally pledge to do everything I can to get this guy located." Fung, too.

 If that doesn't happen, it is not as if Oakland couldn't redevelop the land around Autohouse and Revelli Tires, which occupy about 6,500 square feet amid asphalt parking lots.

  "I was very, very happy there," Revelli told me. "I had the best building, the best location -- one block from the BART station. I couldn't have asked for better."

  Well, there was one problem with Revelli's property: It was on such a prime location, the government virtually stole it.

 You could be next.

 Woody Guthrie wrote: "This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island. From the redwood forest, to the gulf-stream waters, this land was made for you and me."

  As far as the U.S. Supreme Court and Oakland are concerned, alas, those lyrics are all wet. To the true believers in eminent domain, your land is their land, and all land was made to produce optimal tax revenue.