House OKs higher price for eminent domain: Indianapolis (IN) Star, 2/23/05

Bill would make governments pay a premium to obtain property for commercial development

The Indiana House voted Tuesday to make it more costly for government to condemn private property for the sake of commercial development, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that could lead to even more restrictions.

Supporters of House Bill 1063 complained that the wants of developers have trumped the rights of average citizens. They argued that eminent domain laws, which allow the government to buy property against the owners' wishes, have strayed far from their original purpose of making it possible for roads and other necessities to be built.

"We've gone from a public use to a public good," said Rep. David A. Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, the author of the bill. "That's a pretty subjective term."

Wolkins' bill would force cities, counties and other governments to pay a premium for property they condemn to make way for commercial development — such as new subdivisions, shopping centers or manufacturing plants. The bill could affect several projects in Indianapolis, including Mayor Bart Peterson's push to build a new Colts stadium south of the RCA Dome.

City and town officials from throughout Indiana rallied against the bill, which the House passed by a vote of 67 to 29. "The bill makes it more difficult and costly for cities to do economic development," said Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel. "I'm not sure what this bill is trying to fix."

Cities already negotiate fairly with property owners, but when such talks fail, Weinzapfel said, cities need a way to improve downtrodden areas.

In Indianapolis, officials say eminent domain helped redevelop the Fall Creek Place neighborhood. City attorney Kobi Wright said the city also is using the process to claim land for the AmeriPlex business park project near the airport and will do so with property near the proposed new Colts stadium if necessary.

Wright said it is not clear whether that project would fall under the scope of the House bill. In any event, he said, eminent domain is a crucial legal tool.

Few things spark more ill will than when a city tries to claim a property that an owner doesn't want to give up. The city's Capital Improvement Board is now sparring in court with the owner of a Downtown parking lot that would be part of an IndyGo transit hub. The two sides remain far apart, representatives for the city and the lot owner said Tuesday.

The House bill forces governmental entities to pay property owners in those cases 150 percent of the property's assessed value or the average of three private appraisals. The owner would receive the higher of those two yardsticks.

The House vote came as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could have sweeping ramifications for cities. In the case, New London, Conn., is attempting to replace a middle-class neighborhood with new development.

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice has championed the case. Senior attorney Dana Berliner said cities have transformed eminent domain from something used to clean up blighted areas and pave the way for roads and utilities to a process for putting the most profitable projects at desirable locations.

"The attitude is to do it anywhere, and the driving force behind that has been the private developers," Berliner said. "They should not be using the power of government to get whatever land they want."

The Indianapolis Star: www.indystar.com