Eminent domain up for vote: Bowling Green (KY) Daily News, 7/18/05

By Jim Gaines

A new ordinance that would establish strict limits on Bowling Green’s power to use eminent domain will be back for final consideration at Tuesday night’s city commission meeting.

The measure proposed by Commissioner Brian Strow passed a first reading July 5 by a 3-2 vote.

“I’m optimistic that the vote will go just like the first reading,” Strow said this morning. “I’m very proud of the city commission for limiting the potential abuse of government power.”

The ordinance would prohibit the city from using its power to condemn land for anything other than “the building, expansion or maintenance of public buildings, public parks, public utilities, public roads, public bridges, public rights-of-way and public projects.” The last phrase was added July 5 in an amendment proposed by Commissioner Mark Alcott. He said it would include other strictly public-use projects that commissioners couldn’t foresee.

Strow, who campaigned in 2004 on opposition to city use of eminent domain, proposed the ordinance in January. It was then tabled pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case deciding whether eminent domain could be used to further economic development goals.

That court ruling came down June 23, granting governments sweeping latitude in using eminent domain. Strow renewed his push for the ordinance, and won narrow approval.

Kentucky law now allows the use of eminent domain for two purposes: strictly public projects such as roads and schools, and to clear “slum and blight,” not simply for big developments that would broaden the tax base. Both such uses require that property owners be paid actual market value as determined by independent appraisals.

A 29-block area of downtown was formally proclaimed to be blighted as part of Bowling Green’s 2003 redevelopment plan.

Although none of the land sales for city projects now under way has been forced through eminent-domain proceedings, some downtown property owners say the threat of possible condemnation makes any negotiations inherently unfair. Strow said his ordinance would remove that threat.

Mayor Elaine Walker, who voted against the ordinance July 5, said then that she is concerned that land speculators could buy up key sites for redevelopment projects, and demand exorbitant prices for them – thus either halting the projects or costing taxpayers far too much – if the city doesn’t have the final resort of eminent domain.

“The biggest problem that I see with eminent domain in our community is the improper way that it’s threatened,” she said today. “This commission will not operate that way. I really do not see a reason for us to pass this ordinance; I think it can be more harmful than beneficial.”

Twice in the last six months, the city has slightly altered downtown plans or made other accommodations with reluctant property owners, rather than resorting to eminent domain, Walker said. That demonstrates commissioners’ determination to treat citizens fairly, whatever the legal standards, she said.

“The onus is on us to act properly, even if it is allowable under the law,” Walker said.

Bowling Green Daily News: www.bgdailynews.com