After two hours of questions and concerns at a public hearing Wednesday, a House committee approved a bill to limit governments' power to take your property.
The House County and Municipal Government Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, approved the measure on a voice vote. The bill is supposed to keep city and county governments from condemning private property for commercial uses and includes restrictions on retail, office and residential development.
Dukes said most state lawmakers consider eminent domain legislation a high priority for the session.
"It is such an important issue we believe we should get a law on the books," he said. "If there are areas that need adjusting, we can come back and do those."
Both the House and the Senate will tackle the volatile issue this session in an attempt to strengthen the state's protections against private property takeover.
Many North Alabama legislators watched the committee action in an overflow meeting that moved to the House chamber. Reps. Jody Letson, D-Hillsboro; Micky Hammon, R-Decatur; Tommy Carter, D-Elkmont; and Jeremy Oden, R-Eva, all observed the discussion.
All received comments from citizens in their districts after the U.S. Supreme Court said local governments can take property and give it to private developers for commercial and industrial uses in the absence of state law to the contrary.
Letson said he's heard from people in his district and believes the bill is needed. Oden said he wants a provision in the bill to give private property owners the opportunity to buy back their land if the city or county does not use it as planned.
Gov. Bob Riley included the bill as part of his agenda for the special session, and Riley's spokesman Jeff Emerson said the version that passed the committee is basically a good bill.
Rep. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, sponsored the bill, but was not at the meeting because he is hospitalized for cancer treatment.
Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, another sponsor, said the law was designed to put more private property protections in place for Alabama property owners and to do so as rapidly as possible. The bill is likely to come before the full House for consideration today. If it passes the House, the Senate must still approve it before it becomes law.
A similar bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Steve French, requires a constitutional amendment and approval by voters before it could become law.
Several speakers at the meeting had concerns about possible loopholes in the bill. Some members wanted stronger protections for private property owners when a government takes land by eminent domain and then uses it for other than the stated purpose.
Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, called the measure "a very strong plug in a dyke that is leaking."
The governor's legal adviser, Ken Wallace, called the eminent domain ssue "extremely complex" but said the bill seems to address the most pressing issues raised by the Supreme Court decision.
One concern expressed in the meeting was the absence of restrictions on the state's ability to condemn property by eminent domain.
Wallace said the issues the bill addresses involve cities and counties. He said the state has never used eminent domain for commercial development.
Even for industrial acquisitions, including automotive plants built in recent years, Wallace said property owners have received payment.
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