In the wake of A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing eminent domain to be used to foster economic development, the Pennsylvania legislature has introduced bills to limit the practice.
Eminent domain allows government to take land for public use if the landowner is given fair compensation. The power is usually used to acquire land for roads, schools, government buildings, utilities and other public purposes.
In Kelo vs. New London , the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities may take private land by eminent domain and give it to a private entity, with the justification the new owner will pay more taxes, create jobs or otherwise improve the local economy.
But the court noted in its ruling that state legislatures have the power to limit eminent domain for economic development.
Two bills were introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to do just that.
House Bill 1835, introduced by Rep. Thomas F. Yewcic (D-Cambria/Somerset), amends the rules for municipalities, stating that while municipal governments may take land by eminent domain, they may not turn that land over to “a nonpublic interest,” or use eminent domain to increase the tax base.
The bill would also require the taking to include a reverter clause so title would return to the original owner should the land ever be used for a private purpose.
The bill, with 101 co-sponsors, was referred to the Committee on State Government that same day it was introduced.
Local legislators co-sponsoring the bill include Rep. Fred McIlhattan (R-63), Rep. Scott Hutchinson (R-64) and Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-62).
A similar bill, House Bill 1836 was also introduced by Yewcic. This contains the same provisions as HB 1835, but amends the state’s Eminent Domain Code.
HB 1836 has 100 co-sponsors, including McIlhattan, Hutchinson and Rapp, and is also now in the House Committee on State Government.
A bill which would fund local government to buy blighted land and essentially give it to private owners has been amended to rule out the use of eminent domain.
House Bill 1358 would have the state issue $200 million in bonds and use the money in a grant program. Local governments awarded the grants can purchase blighted property outright or at a tax sale and sell it to private developers for $1 per property.
Municipalities would not be allowed to use eminent domain to purchase blighted properties.
The amendment was added July 1 and the house voted 170 to 27 for final approval.
The bill moved on to the Senate, where it was referred July 2 to the Urban Affairs and Housing Committee.
House Bill 1358 was introduced by Rep. Michael Diven (R-Allegheny) and has 24 co-sponsors, including McIlhattan.
The U.S. Congress has responded to the Kelo decision as well. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill banning the use of federal funds for any state or municipal project using eminent domain for economic development purposes.
A similar bill, barring the use of federal transportation funds, passed the U.S. House.
Liberals and conservatives in Congress are joining forces to enact federal bans on eminent domain for economic development.
Conservative Republicans point to the preservation of property rights and dislike what they see as government interference. Liberal Democrats dislike government taking of property for private interests as unfair to the average citizen and a form of corporate welfare.
Information on legislation in the Pennsylvania General Assembly can be found on the Internet at www.legis.state.pa.us.n
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