Maine lawmakers must clarify eminent domain law: Kennebeck Journal (Augusta ME), 8/14/05

No one in Maine, not even the attorney general, can say what would happen if the state or a community tried to seize your home to make room for a private development, such as a strip mall or an apartment complex.

State lawmakers need to correct this as soon as possible.

The issue became red-hot in June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a Connecticut city could force the owners of older houses in a stable, waterfront neighborhood to sell out so a private developer could demolish the homes and build upscale offices, a hotel and a convention center that would boost the local tax base.

The high court's decision shocked many people. Fortunately, the justices provided an escape by ruling that states could impose tighter rules to prevent this liberal interpretation of eminent domain powers.

Maine, therefore, should deal with this confusion by clarifying its imprecise law that "might" ban the taking of private property for the benefit of businesses. Even legal experts and lawmakers cannot say for sure.

Attorney General G. Steven Rowe said the Maine Constitution has language dealing with eminent domain that differs from the federal constitutional provision and from the Supreme Court's recent decision.

Rowe also said that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has made few rulings interpreting the language.

Maine's eminent domain law, therefore, should be reworked in the Legislature so it is no longer left open to interpretation.

Lawmakers should rewrite the law so it clearly bans the taking of private property for private development under almost all circumstances.

Eminent domain should remain the absolute last option to promote economic development. If it is never used for such purposes, that would be fine.

The legal concept of eminent domain was originally intended as a way to prevent projects of public need and importance — such as roads, highways, sewers and schools — from being held up by property owners who refused to sell.

It allows governments to take private property for a fair-market price.

Increasingly, state or municipal officials in other states have been expanding the circumstances under which they will attempt to take private land by eminent domain.

In this regard, government officials should be extremely cautious.

Several Maine lawmakers have said they oppose the use of eminent domain as a means to provide land for private businesses or developers.

"Of course we should ban this," Rep. Henry L. Joy, R-Crystal, told a reporter. "I have had people come up to me and ask, 'What is this country coming to?'

"People are really upset about this ruling. I think the court made a mistake."

Joy has pledged to press legislative leaders to allow consideration of a bill to prohibit state and local governments from seizing property for commercial uses, including residential, retail or industrial development.

With the increasing emphasis on expanding property tax bases and on economic development, Maine needs an eminent domain law that is clear in its protection of those who live here.

The law should be crafted carefully to provide for that extremely rare case when the public good truly exceeds people's rights to keep their property and block construction of private developments.

Kennebec Journal: kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com