A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding the government's powers to take land has prompted a strong contingent of Pennsylvania lawmakers to try to block the decision in the state. Lawmakers met earlier this week to discuss two bills that would ban local governments in Pennsylvania from taking private property and turning it over to a "nonpublic interest," or for the purposes of expanding a local tax base.
One lawmaker, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), said the court ruling is so overreaching as to put the very nature of American property rights at stake.
"People are upset. We have been contacted on this second only to the [legislative] pay raise issue. They're wanting us to act," Metcalfe said at a hearing before the House State Government Committee.
At the heart of the debate is the question of how much power local government should have in advancing economic redevelopment efforts. Should a municipality, for example, be able to seize homes on a blighted street and turn the properties over to a developer to build high-end condominiums or a shopping mall? Or, should the government's powers on eminent domain be limited to building highways, schools or other public works?
The recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision granted New London, Conn., the authority to take seven homes and use the land to assist a redevelopment effort spurred on by a global research center built by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc.
Since then, nearly half the states are moving to block the ruling. That's possible because the court is allowing states to institute their own bans.
Using the power of eminent domain to advance private development has come up in Pennsylvania before. Pittsburgh tried to take 64 buildings downtown to make way for a new entertainment and shopping development, which failed after department store Nordstrom pulled out.
"In my estimate, this is nothing more than legalized plunder," said the two bills' author, Rep. Thomas Yewcic (D-Somerset), adding that such a power tends to benefit the wealthy and well-connected who can afford to undertake lucrative projects with government backing.
The bills also include a clause that would allow property to revert back to the condemnee or the heirs if the property is ever used for a nonpublic purpose.
Supporters of the court decision, such as the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, say the public benefits from redevelopment and that's often achieved by partnering the powers of government with private investment.
York Mayor John Brenner, the league's president, said municipalities engaged in redevelopment need to have the tools to bundle properties together to spur on a large project that has impact. Without the power of eminent domain, urban areas will find it difficult to redevelop and urban sprawl will continue, he said.
"A recurring theme within our state government agencies these days is the encouragement of public-private partnerships to enhance economic development," Brenner said. "This restriction flies in the face of that policy."
Brenner noted that the proposed legislation does not define "nonpublic purposes" and that public taking may cause private gain but still be considered a public purpose. Also, he said municipalities tend to use eminent domain with discretion and restraint.
But Metcalfe insisted that presumptive restraint is not enough.
"You have an eminent domain tool so broad you could basically condemn anything," he said. "We shouldn't have to trust you. We should trust the law because we live in a country of laws and the laws don't protect property rights in Pennsylvania."
Gov. Ed Rendell on Wednesday did not commit to signing legislation restricting eminent domain should it reach his desk.
Rendell, whose own redevelopment efforts include spearheading a $42 million package in state subsidies to help Comcast build a 57-story skyscraper in downtown Philadelphia, said economic redevelopment must be able to move forward.
"There's a balance to be struck here," he said. "I will try to ensure we strike the right balance."
Among the two bills' 101 cosponsors are Rep. Larry Roberts (D-South Union Twp.), and Rep. Jess Stairs (R-Acme).