By John Fryar
At least two state lawmakers plan to propose limiting local governments’ ability to seize private property to create sites for private development.
Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, said she intends next year to reintroduce a measure she failed to get approved in the Legislature’s 2004 and 2005 sessions — a proposed law that would restrict urban renewal agencies’ power to declare areas “blighted” and then subject them to condemnation proceedings.
Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, wants to go even further.
Rather than just passing a new state law, White said, the Legislature should ask voters in 2006 to amend the Colorado Constitution to prohibit government agencies from using eminent-domain powers to condemn property and then turn it over to a private developer.
But Sam Mamet, associate director of the Colorado Municipal League, insisted that further legislation is not needed in this state after last year’s Legislature adopted a law imposing new conditions and requirements on the use of urban-renewal condemnation powers.
White said, “The citizens and small businesses in this state deserve protection from potentially abusive municipalities and corporations.”
White said Colorado property owners “should be confident that their rights won’t be violated simply because a city can make more money by using their land for a shopping complex or a hotel building.”
Tochtrop and White both said a June 23 U.S. Supreme Court decision firmed their determination to tighten up Colorado’s urban-renewal and eminent-domain laws.
The nation’s high-court justices, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld the authority of New London, Conn., to use its eminent-domain power to seize property from owners unwilling to sell, in order to proceed with an economic development project.
White warned that that ruling could allow local governments in Colorado to condemn any land if they decide its redevelopment would increase tax revenue, regardless of whether that property is actually “blighted.”
White said there is “a reasonable time and purpose” for government agencies to use eminent-domain powers “for necessary public-related activities,” such as when acquiring sites for government buildings, parks or libraries, or when assembling right of way for transportation improvements.
However, “I think we’ve seen in our country, certainly in our state, a tendency of local governments to use eminent domain simply for increasing revenues,” White said.
The Supreme Court majority suggested in its ruling that states can still impose their own restrictions or prohibitions on the use of eminent domain, even if Connecticut laws at the time did not bar New London from using an economic-development rationale to justify condemning property there.
Tochtrop failed last year to pass a bill that would have removed “economic liability” as one of the factors an urban renewal authority can use when declaring an area to be blighted.
This year’s unsuccessful Tochtrop bill could have blocked local governments from putting certain vacant properties or productive agricultural lands into an urban-renewal district.
The Colorado Municipal League, which opposed Tochtrop’s 2004 and 2005 bills, is also expected to oppose the measures she and White are proposing for next year’s legislative session.
CML’s Mamet said, “The Legislature dealt with this issue very comprehensively” in 2004.
“When they had the opportunity to specifically prohibit condemnation for redevelopment purposes, they rejected it,” Mamet said.
Mamet said, “The fact of the matter is, very few municipalities ever use condemnation for economic development-related purposes.”
He said that when it comes to eminent domain, “municipal leaders fully understand what the rules are, both legally, and more importantly, in the court of public opinion.”
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