Eminent domain ruling likely won't have local impact: (Michigan City IN) News-Dispatch, 7/3/05

By Jason Miller

A controversial vote by the U.S. Supreme Court last week to make the taking of personal property by local municipalities easier likely won't effect efforts by Michigan City to purchase the Blocksom and Co. property.

"If we're looking at acquiring property for public access or redevelopment, then the decision will have no impact," Mayor Chuck Oberlie said. "The tool is there regardless of that decision."

Last week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses against the owner's will for private economic development.

The ruling seemingly expanded parameters of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain for public use.

Indiana law also allows for the taking of private property for public use if the property or surrounding area is considered a blight on the community.

The city - which wants to tear down the Blocksom factory at the corner of Fifth Street and Michigan Boulevard and redevelop the area - has yet to begin negotiations on the purchase of Blocksom.

In recent months, however, the notion the city might look into taking the property by eminent domain has popped up.

Blocksom President Andy Swann agreed with Oberlie, saying eminent domain is a state issue and could be brought to the table regardless of the court's recent decision.

He didn't know, however, when negotiations might begin.

"We're trying to be cooperative with the (city's) Redevelopment Commission," Swann said of the department responsible for negotiating with Blocksom. "We're going by Indiana law. It may not be an issue for us."

Oberlie has maintained throughout talks about Blocksom that eminent domain should be used only as a last resort. He has said, though, that determining fair value through the courts - which is what eminent domain proceedings accomplish - is sometimes the best option.

"Sometimes it's best to go that route, though, if there is a large sum of money involved," he said. "It assures everyone involved that the process was done properly."

The current process and that approved by the Supreme Court last week both walk a line between maintaining personal property rights and taking them away.

In that light, Oberlie said, the new ruling - which he thinks will likely be appealed and possibly overturned - should be used sparingly because it could force state-level legislators to look more closely at their own statutes.

"I was surprised (by the ruling). The ability to hold private property is pretty sacred in this country," he said. "A public need must be determined. You can't just take someone's house to put up a fireworks stand once a year.

"You have to really figure out what the level is that makes doing it worthwhile."

The News-Dispatch: www.thenewsdispatch.com