By Todd A. Amspoker, Attorney—Price, Postel & Parma LLP
In eminent domain cases it is common that there are both legal and factual issues that need to be decided. There is often controversy regarding the relative roles of the court and jury to make decisions on these issues. The basic rule – the jury decides the amount of compensation and the judge decides all other issues – is easy to state. However, in practice it is often not very clear whether the judge or the jury is to decide a particular issue. Until relatively recently, it was common that courts would restrict juries to deciding nothing other than the amount of compensation, and leave everything else to the judge. However, the equation changed with the Supreme Court‟s decision in Metropolitan Water District of So. California v. Campus Crusade for Christ (2007) 41 Cal.4th 954. There, the question was whether it was reasonably probable that the zoning status of the condemned property would be changed in the reasonably near future. The Supreme Court held that because these two issues were purely questions of fact “directly pertaining to the proper amount of compensation,” the jury was charged with deciding the outcome. However, the Supreme Court did note that the trial judge is the “gatekeeper” of the evidence that is allowed to be presented to the jury. Before such evidence may be presented to the jury, the trial judge must first determine whether there is sufficient evidence that would permit a jury to conclude there is a reasonable probability of rezoning in the near future: “Evidence of a reasonable probability of a zoning change in the near future „must at least be in accordance with the usual minimum evidentiary requirements, and that which is purely speculative, wholly guess work and conjectural, is inadmissible.‟” 41 Cal.4th 954, 968.
An application of the Campus Crusade rule recently occurred in City of Perris v. Stamper (2016) 1 Cal.5th 576. There, the City of Perris condemned land for a truck route through undeveloped industrial land. The City contended that the owner should only be paid the undeveloped (agricultural) land value of the property, because if the owner sought to develop the property, the City would have required the owner to dedicate and improve the condemned land for roadway purposes. The question was whether the trial judge or the jury was to decide whether the City could have legally required the owner to dedicate the land for a roadway. The Supreme Court decided that the legality of the dedication requirement was an issue for the trial judge, not the jury, to decide. The reason for this is that the dedication issue is a mixed question lf law and fact in which the legal issues predominate. The issue was constitutional in nature, requiring the court to evaluate whether the dedication requirement exceed the limits of legislative power. This type of decision is typically not entrusted to a jury.
The other question decided in City of Perris was whether the consideration of the dedication requirement would violate the “project effect” rule. It is a well-known rule in condemnation cases that the impact of the proposed project is not to be considered in determining just compensation. The property owner claimed that since the property was condemned to build a roadway, the roadway project (and hence the dedication requirement for that very same roadway) must not be considered. The Supreme Court decided that the consideration of the dedication requirement would not violate the “project effect” rule. The reason for this was that the dedication requirement was clearly in place before the City contemplated the road project for which the property was condemned. The condemned roadway property had been designated as a future roadway in the City‟s general plan, but such designation does not mean that the City would actually condemn the property to build the roadway.