Eminent domain in question: Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, 8/5/05

Bill in legislature would temporarily halt taking of property until issue is studied

By Steve Kemme

Some local officials and planners have misgivings about a proposal for a moratorium in Ohio on the use of eminent domain to seize people's homes and businesses for private economic development projects in areas that are not blighted.

Ohio lawmakers would use the time to decide whether the state's eminent domain laws need to be changed to give more protection to private property owners.

Two state senators from northern Ohio, Democrat Kimberley Zurz and Republican Tim Grendell, introduced the legislation this week in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that supported the right of local governments to take private property for economic development.

The decision has caused many states, including Ohio, to consider placing more limits on eminent domain. This week, the Alabama governor signed a law prohibiting cities and counties from using eminent domain for private development.

"We didn't want to hastily jump to conclusion like some states," said Jarrod Bottomley, an assistant to Grendell. "We want time for a reasoned, measured response."

Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz, a Green Township Republican, said he favors examining the state's eminent domain laws for possible changes, but he opposes a moratorium.

"I don't think we need a moratorium because I don't know how many worthwhile projects we would be stopping," he said. "A flat-out moratorium sweeps a bit too broadly."

Ohio Sen. Mark Mallory, a Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the moratorium, which would not affect projects already under way, wouldn't harm any communities.

"This bill won't stop the progress of any major public projects," said Mallory, who is running for Cincinnati mayor.

"We're trying to ensure there's a balanced approach to the subject of eminent domain. Let's study the state's eminent domain laws and see if they need to be refined. Maybe they do, and maybe they don't."

David Main, president of the Hamilton County Development Co., said a moratorium could hurt the older central cores of cities and the first ring of suburban communities.

"Those kinds of communities need to assemble property in order to make new development feasible," he said. "There are times when, as a last resort, eminent domain needs to be pursued to revitalize an area."

The U.S. Supreme Court decision, which allowed New London, Conn., to acquire property for a shopping center, had special resonance in Norwood.

Norwood has been embroiled in an eminent domain battle for more than two years. The case has many parallels to New London's. Norwood, a financially struggling city, used eminent domain to acquire properties to complete the site for the planned Rookwood Exchange, a $125 million complex of offices, shops, housing and restaurants on Edwards Road.

Lower courts upheld Norwood's action, but the case is still before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Norwood defended its use of eminent domain by contending that the neighborhood was deteriorating and that the new jobs and city revenue that would be created by the Rookwood Exchange would benefit the public.

Tim Burke, attorney for Norwood, said Ohio legislators should be cautious about imposing a moratorium and changing eminent domain laws.

"There's an awful lot of confusion and misinformation about eminent domain," Burke said. "On rare occasions, communities like Norwood need to have eminent domain to make substantial improvements in the community."

Bert Gall, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm based in Washington, praised Ohio's moratorium bill. The Institute is representing the property owners challenging Norwood.

"Ohio home and business owners should rejoice at any talk of a moratorium because the use of eminent domain is so rampant in Ohio," he said. "Legislators across the country are taking steps to lessen the abuse of eminent domain in their states. Ohio is joining a growing trend in this regard."

But Seitz said he doesn't believe there's been any significant abuse in Ohio.

"To say a beleaguered city like Norwood would be prohibited from using eminent domain for any economic development purposes goes too far," he said.

Cincinnati Enquirer: http://news.enquirer.com

To read the proposed legislation for a moratorium on the use of eminent domain, go to www.legislature.state.oh.us and look for Senate Bill 167 under "search for legislative information."