(CN) – The federal government can seize a small patch of prime waterfront land in San Diego that has been used by the Navy for more than 60 years, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Ownership of the 32.42 acres on North Harbor Drive, on which the Navy operates its Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center, has been in dispute for years. When California joined union in 1850, the land was entirely underwater. Now, there are just 5 acres still submerged. The Navy first leased the property in 1949 for 50 years, with an option for an additional 50. The parties first went to court in the 1990s after the initial lease expired. They later worked out a deal that allowed the Navy to stay until 2049. But the Navy decided in 2005 that it wanted to own the property outright and sought condemnation in U.S. District Court.
The California State Lands Commission claimed that the government’s eminent domain powers did not override the state’s public trust rights to the land. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ruled for the government, however, finding federal rights superior to those of the state. A jury later set the property’s value at nearly $3 million, well above the Navy’s initial offer of $237,000.
The Lands Commission appealed to the 9th Circuit, but its argument fared no better with the federal appeals court in Pasadena. A three-judge panel rejected the commission’s arguments on the limits of eminent domain in a ruling published Thursday.
“The United States Navy has determined that it wants to take the property in full fee simple, unencumbered by California’s public trust, to fulfill its military mission for the nation,” Judge Ronald Gould wrote for the unanimous panel. “We do not have jurisdiction to review the wisdom of that determination.”
The panel disagreed that the equal-footing and public-trust doctrines prohibit the taking of public trust land.
“Having paid just compensation, the United States is entitled to the interest it sought in its complaint in condemnation: full fee simple, free of California’s public trust,” Gould wrote. “We have concluded that neither the equal-footing doctrine nor the public trust doctrine prevents the federal government from taking that interest in the land unencumbered.”