L&L-4-14-IJ and the CYAC: Undisputed Champions for Property Rights

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CYAC President Clemente Casillas, top, is now free to train and inspire National City, Calif., youth at the boxing gym and mentoring center without the government threatening eminent domain.

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 IJ senior attorney Jeff Rowes and litigation director Dana Berliner in 2007 at the launch of the case.
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Families rally in support of the CYAC gym.


By Jeff Rowes


In law, as in life, you must be ready to go the distance. And that is just what IJ and the kids of the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) did in taking on property-rights abuse in National City, Calif. Our long fight is now over and we won!

Longtime readers of Liberty & Law may remember that IJ stepped into the ring with National City in May 2007 to protect the CYAC—a boxing and mentoring center for disadvantaged youth—from eminent domain for private development. The CYAC started in 1991 with a punching bag in Carlos Barragan, Jr.’s backyard that provided a refuge from gangs and drugs. With the help of generous donations, CYAC President Clemente Casillas—whose own life had been turned around by youth boxing—and the CYAC board purchased and rehabilitated an abandoned gun store in 2001.

Then, in 2005, National City promised the CYAC’s land to a private developer seeking to build luxury condominiums during California’s housing bubble. National City justified this as “blight clearance.” Like hundreds of cities across California, National City kept vast swaths of land (nearly two-thirds of the city) under serial blight designations for decades so that the municipal redevelopment agency could use blight laws to throw people off their property while wheeling and dealing with developers. The abuse of property rights had become so shameless by 2007 that the developer put up a “Coming Soon” sign right next to the CYAC depicting the condo development, as though the destruction of the little gym were inevitable.

That’s when IJ evened the odds. Over six-and-a-half years, a knock-down, drag-out battle ensued with hundreds of pages of briefing, countless hearings, a weeklong trial, multiple appeals and two petitions to the California Supreme Court. In the end, when the bell finally rang, we were the last man standing.

We struck down a bogus blight designation covering nearly 700 properties, thereby protecting the gym and its neighbors from eminent-domain abuse. The precedent we created was the first interpretation of the 2006 property rights amendments that were part of a nationwide reform movement that IJ spearheaded in the wake of the disastrous Kelo v. City of New London decision. We also secured a ruling that documents produced by a private government contractor in the performance of a government function are public records subject to disclosure under freedom-of-information laws. That aspect of the case will ensure greater transparency in California and influence the interpretation of similar laws across the country.

Defending liberty rarely involves a spectacular one-punch knockout. We must usually endure years of grinding combat with opponents far above our weight class. But with skill, daring and an absolute refusal to yield, we can beat anyone. We have the scars to prove it.

Jeff Rowes is ian IJ senior attorney.



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