Bills Will Curb Eminent Domain Abuse in PA: The (PA) Commonwealth Foundation, 8/10/05

News Release

Commonwealth Foundation testifies before the House State Government Committee

Last week, Alabama became the first state to give its citizens stronger protections against eminent domain for private profit in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London. On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ State Government Committee heard from the Commonwealth Foundation on legislation (HB 1835 and HB 1836) that would also curb the abuse of eminent domain in the commonwealth.

The Kelo Case gave governments at all levels throughout Pennsylvania the power to seize homes, small businesses, churches and other property to benefit private interests without violating the U.S. Constitution. Instead of giving meaning to the Constitution’s “public use” limitation on the power of eminent domain, the Court left it up to states and municipalities to protect home and small business owners from seizure for private development.

“It is now up to Pennsylvania policymakers to protect the private property of citizens across the commonwealth by limiting the power of eminent domain by government to take private property for private uses,” said Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.

Brouillette commended Rep. Tom Yewcic (D-72) for introducing bills that would better protect Pennsylvanians from having their property taken for the benefit of other private or commercial purposes. He did, however, encourage Rep. Yewcic to “close the loopholes” in his legislation that would still permit governments to misuse and abuse the power of eminent domain.

“Unfortunately, the term ‘nonpublic interest’ is far too vague and can be interpreted loosely so as to effectively leave the current state laws unchanged,” Brouillette told the Committee. He argued this term, as well as the term “blighted property” and the “reverter clauses” must be clearly defined and fully explained.

The “reverter clauses” in HB 1835 and HB 1836 would require property taken through eminent domain to be returned to the condemnee if the property is used for a nonpublic purpose. However, Brouillette noted that New York has a similarly nebulous reverter clause which allowed the courts to find that land originally taken for a school and then given to a private corporation was still a public use because the new industry would be good for the city. “Pennsylvania laws on eminent domain should anticipate such attempts to circumvent the spirit and intent of the judiciary, particularly given its recent and traditional proclivity to ignore Constitutional restraints and prohibitions,” said Brouillette.

The Commonwealth Foundation: http://commonwealthfoundation.org