Eminent domain ruling not seen as having impact locally, for now : Jacksonville (NC) Daily News, 7/5/05

By Bernhardt Dotson

While there should be no immediate impact from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding local governments and property rights, that doesn't mean it will stay that way.

The High Court's decision regarding eminent domain, local governments and property rights won't be an issue until the General Assembly decides to make it one, according to legal experts like David Lawrence with the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina.

Jacksonville city attorney John Carter agreed.

"The city operates under the jurisdiction of the state," Carter said.

"The matter wouldn't effect us in North Carolina, because the legislature hasn't given local authorities the OK to do anything."

But the ruling does open the door for legislators to possibly change the current state law.

The court ruled that New London, Conn., has the authority to condemn property - with payment or just compensation - in carrying out a development plan to revitalize its economy. The court said that the condemnation was for a public use, and not unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.

Current state law outlines nine conditions under which cities and counties can condemn private land, including those to create or expand roads, parks, sewer lines and government buildings. Private development isn't a part of the list.

"This decision is based on Connecticut law, which allows for use of eminent domain for economic development purposes," said S. Ellis Hankins, executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. "North Carolina statutes do not authorize local governments to use eminent domain for general economic development purposes. Therefore, this decision will not change the authority (N.C.) municipalities and counties exercise in this area."

The case, Kelo v. New London, Conn., saw justices vote 5-4 that New London officials could condemn residents' houses and raze them to make way for a private office complex. New London officials argued that private development plans served a public purpose of heightening economic growth that outweighed homeowners' property rights.

The ruling comes amid Jacksonville's talks about a proposed $46 million civic center complex along Marine Boulevard. That proposal - $15 million of which would be the city's share - includes a conference center/hotel and an accompanying privately funded military museum. The proposal is mired in economic and political squabbles, drawing criticism on everything from location to taxpayers' funding of it.

The ruling did help protect some important interests for cities, Hankins said.

"If the Supreme Court had ruled against the city of New London, however, the decision might have raised constitutional concerns about condemnation by our local governments to improve blighted areas and build or expand airports and other public facilities related to economic development," said Hankins.

"We were pleased to see that the court majority decided that the Fifth Amendment leaves room for judicial deference to legislative decisions by local elected officials. It is ironic that the closing of the New London submarine base was proposed while this case was pending, further underscoring the need for reasonable government efforts to help create jobs."

Jacksonville City Councilman George Mainor said he values the rights of property owners. He doesn't foresee much local impact.

"I believe that property rights are important," he said. "From what I understand, I don't think the ruling effects local governments - not in North Carolina anyway."

Daily News: www.jdnews.com