Initiative would restrict forced sales of property to government: (Fargo ND) In-Forum, 9/13/05

Associated Press

North Dakota's state and local governments would be barred from seizing private property for economic development projects under a constitutional initiative that has been submitted for review.

It represents a joint effort involving a property rights group, called the Landowners Association of North Dakota, and former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, who had been preparing a separate initiative.

It would add two sentences to the North Dakota Constitution to limit government power to take private property to circumstances when it is needed to build streets, sewers, utility lines and other public works.

Property Right Initiative
"It was to everyone's best interest if we just sat down and said, 'What are we really trying to accomplish? What's the purpose?'" Heitkamp said. "We realized we had a complete meeting of the minds about what we wanted to do."

The proposal was inspired by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, handed down in June, in which the justices ruled in favor of a Connecticut city that wanted to force a group of residents to sell their homes and land to make way for a luxury waterfront development.

Litchville farmer Don Berge, who is chairman of the initiative campaign and president of the Landowners Association of North Dakota, said property rights supporters need to ensure that North Dakota governments aren't allowed to take property to benefit other private interests.

"A homeowner that is paying their taxes — law-abiding citizens — I don't feel that you can go in and take their property just because there's an economic benefit for local government, that they can possibly make more taxes off of a new building," Berge said. "That is basically wrong. It's morally wrong."

Berge and a group of amendment supporters delivered their proposed amendment language to Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office on Monday.

Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem have the responsibility of reviewing the petition's form and drafting a short explanation of what the amendment does. They are not allowed to revise its contents. The measure should be ready for circulation late this month.

Connie Sprynczynatyk, director of the North Dakota League of Cities, and Mark Johnson, director of the state Association of Counties, said they expect discussions of the issue at the annual meetings of their respective groups.

The League of Cities is holding its annual meeting next week in Fargo, while the county association's gathering is scheduled next month in Bismarck.

Johnson said county officials are sensitive to property rights issues.

"Local government doesn't want to lose its authority to take property for a public purpose, such as roads or water lines," Johnson said. "But they are very much opposed to taking it for purely economic development purposes."

The landowners' group initially drafted a much longer constitutional initiative. Berge said the finished product resulted from consultations with legislators, activists and people with experience in initiative and referendum campaigns.

"With any initiated measure, the shorter, the better," Berge said. "I think it gets more succinct. People are more able to grasp what you're trying to do. The purpose is the same."

Among the 32 members of the initiative's sponsoring committee are Heitkamp; her brother, state Sen. Joel Heitkamp, D-Hankinson; state Sens. April Fairfield, D-Eldridge, and Aaron Krauter, D-Regent; and Republican state Rep. Charles Damschen of Hampden.

Curly Haugland, a Bismarck businessman and former state Republican chairman, and Tom Dickson, a Bismarck attorney and former Democratic chairman, are sponsors.

Charlene Nelson of Casselton, who helped lead a referendum campaign against weakening North Dakota bank privacy law three years ago, is a sponsor, as are Glen Baltrusch of Harvey, a Reform Party activist, and Ralph Muecke of Gladstone, a veteran of several initiative and referendum campaigns.

Berge said the initiative campaign will use the name C-RED, for Citizens Restricting Eminent Domain. "I guess whenever you have the potential for wrong, I think you have to step out in front and head it off," he said. "If this happened in Connecticut, why can't it happen here?"

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