33 eminent domain bills crafted: Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune-Review, 9/24/05

By Sam Spatter

Pennsylvania legislators have introduced 33 bills to resolve the issue of government use of eminent domain in obtaining property from private owners, experts on eminent domain said Friday.

The rush to obtain state legislation is a result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows governments to continue to take private property for economic development by private developers.

Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, who is co-sponsoring one of the bills, believes that while eminent domain should be used to benefit the public, he questions its use when the beneficiary is a private company.

Maher, along with Eloise Hirsh, former director of Pittsburgh Planning Department, reviewed the good and bad points of eminent domain during an event held by the Urban Land Institute Pittsburgh District Council at the Rivers Club, Oxford Centre, Downtown.

Hirsh, now a resident of New York City, said practically every city in the nation has or will use eminent domain for economic development.

She noted it occurred in Cleveland for Jacobs Field (the baseball park used by the Cleveland Indians), to assemble property for the Inner Harbor development in Baltimore, and for developments currently under way or planned in Fort Worth, Texas.

In Pittsburgh, Hirsh pointed to the 1999 case when H.J. Heinz Co. needed property owned by Pittsburgh Wool owners Jeffrey and Roy Kumer to expand its production facilities. The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority threatened to use eminent domain, but ended up paying $5 million for property that had an assessed value of $1.5 million.

Heinz was offered land and economic benefits by the state of Ohio to relocate its warehouse and truck distribution facility there, said Clifford B. Levine, a partner at Thorp Reed & Armstrong LLP.

The loss of the facility might have led Heinz to relocate out of Pittsburgh and then the future loss of DelMonte Foods Co. coming to Pittsburgh, he said.

"If the Wool site was needed for a highway, and the government used eminent domain to obtain it, would there have been the same controversy over its use?" Hirsh asked.

The Superme Court ruled in the case, Kelo v. New London, Conn., where 15 homeowners refused to sell their property to allow a massive redevelopment project in the town. By a 5-4 vote, the court said the "public use" clause in the Fifth Amendment allows governments to take property even if the property won't become publicly owned, such as for parks, roads or jails.

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