County backs limits on use of eminent domain: Atlanta (GA) Journal-Constitution, 7/14/05

By Christopher Quinn

Cherokee County has joined others in Georgia in pushing the General Assembly to pass a law to limit government's power to seize land.

The county commissioners unanimously passed a resolution July 5 calling on the state to restrict the use of eminent domain — when a government forces a landowner to sell to it — if the land is going to be given to a company or another individual for economic development.

The resolution follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that New London, Conn., could seize land not only for traditional government projects like roads and schools, but also to turn the property over to private developers when officials decide it benefits the public.

"We felt that the Supreme Court got this one wrong," said commission Chairman Mike Byrd, who introduced the resolution.

"To take someone's home that they have worked for their whole life and give it to someone else for economic development is totally inappropriate."

Commissioner Derek Good said, "Eminent domain should be restricted, in my opinion, to true public purposes like building a road or county facility."

The commission wanted to send a message to its state delegates to take some action, Byrd said.

A growing chorus of state legislators and county governments are pushing for such restrictions.

Though the high court ruled in favor of the city, one of the justices noted that it did not prevent states from writing laws to restrict the legal use of eminent domain.

Cobb leaders have talked of taking action if the state doesn't.

Cobb Chairman Sam Olens said he believes the county could pass local ordinances restricting the use of eminent domain, but it would be better if the state did it so that the law would be uniform from county to county. He will wait to see what the General Assembly does before making any moves, he said.

Vernon Jones, the chief executive officer of DeKalb County, filed a resolution condemning the use of eminent domain for economic development. Jones' resolution will not carry the force of law.

"But we are taking a stand to say we are not going to seize private property for economic development purposes," he said.

He has already talked to state legislators about the issue, he said.

Pressure on General Assembly members to address eminent domain issues has been mounting in recent years. Efforts to limit the use of eminent domain by power companies when siting power lines failed in 2004.

Another bill introduced this year created a unexpected backlash against eminent domain.

Republicans introduced the bill, whose intent was to allow local governments to partner with private businesses to build public facilities. Part of the law would have allowed the businesses to select sites for proposed projects in a process with little public input and ask governments to condemn the property.

It became a shouting point for radio talk jockeys, who predicted the end of private property rights. Newspaper editorials condemned the idea and the secretiveness of the process. A cascade of phone calls and e-mails from constituents hit legislators.

The bill was quickly shipped off to a study committee, and Republican leaders have said it will not be resurrected.

During the session, another bill was introduced in the state Senate that would have prevented governments from using eminent domain for reasons of economic development. It passed the Senate but did not make it out of the House before the session closed.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson appointed the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick), to head up a committee to prepare the law for another run when the General Assembly opens in January 2006.

Chapman plans to hold one or more hearings on eminent domain in late summer.

Olens said with all the political heat generated in the last year, he expects the law to be passed.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: www.ajc.com