Eminent domain reins: Albany (NY) Times Union, 7/17/05

A Westchester legislator proposes a bill to protect the rights of property owners

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should listen to Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Westchester. Mr. DeLay is convinced that the House should undermine a recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain. That's the wrong remedy. Mr. Brodsky proposes the right way to protect property owner rights -- through state legislation.

The high court's 5-4 ruling last month set off an immediate and ill-informed reaction by advocates of private property rights. They denounced the ruling, which upheld the right of New London, Conn., to seize some homes through eminent domain and give the property to commercial developers for a sweeping waterfront project. The door was open, the critics warned, to seizing homes at will to accommodate private developers seeking to build everything from a cheap motel to an expansive shopping mall. Then the House got into the act by approving, largely at Mr. DeLay's behest, legislation that would deny certain federal funds to any locality that used eminent domain for the benefit of a profit-making venture.

But there are two good reasons why such apprehension is unwarranted. First, the high court's ruling made it clear that eminent domain could be used only for a public purpose. Building a big box store or a motel would hardly meet that standard. Second, the best safeguard against abuse by developers, or local officials eager to do business with them, has always rested with the state legislatures, which have the power to establish the standards under which property may be seized.

Mr. Brodsky's proposal would invoke that power wisely. He would give property owners more time — 90 days instead of the current 30 — to appeal condemnations. The bill also specifies that property owners who are displaced must be paid at least 150 percent of the market value of their homes, as a safeguard against developers seeking to turn a quick profit by buying up properties in declining neighborhoods. The key protection, though, is a requirement that would limit the use of eminent domain to comprehensive economic development plans that have been discussed in public meetings and approved by local legislators.

These are sensible requirements that will not hinder economic development in a community. At the same time, they will thwart abuse by developers and politicians who might be tempted to strike deals in private. The Legislature should put Mr. Brodsky's bill high on its list for approval in the next session.

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