County counters eminent domain ruling: (Medford OR) Mail Tribune, 9/1/05

By Damian Mann

Jackson County commissioners passed an ordinance Wednesday that severely limits government’s ability to seize private property unless there is a clear public benefit.

The commissioners drafted the ordinance in answer to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that government entities can invoke eminent domain to condemn homes in a working-class neighborhood for private development in hopes of boosting tax revenue and improving the local economy.

"I don’t want that to happen here," said Commissioner Dave Gilmour, who urged other municipalities to pass a similar ordinance. "We don’t have the right to take private property to benefit non-public uses."

Commissioner C.W. Smith, citing the need to protect property rights, said, "I am extremely shocked the Supreme Court would take this kind of action."

Commissioner Jack Walker, who is recovering from surgery and wasn’t present at the meeting, previously expressed solidarity with the other commissioners.

The ordinance doesn’t mean that commissioners won’t exercise government’s ability to use eminent domain in situations that benefit the public, such as road and bridge projects. The county approves several eminent domain actions every year.

The ordinance, which will have a second reading on Sept. 14 before fully taking effect, reads: "The Jackson County Board of Commissioners believes that the power of eminent domain should be used to acquire property only for public purposes, as has traditionally been the case in Oregon."

Last year, commissioners rejected a request by Britt Festivals to seize property needed for expansion.

In years past, government agencies have used eminent domain to build Camp White during World War II and Interstate 5 in the late 1960s.

The county also gives land back to property owners in some cases, such as when a road that was planned many years ago is never built or a right of way is no longer needed.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the government now has license to transfer property from the poor and middle class to corporations and development firms.

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