Panel wants review of eminent domain laws: Bismarck (ND) Tribune, 9/20/05

By Tom Rafferty

A North Dakota legislative committee is moving ahead with a study of eminent domain laws despite a declaration from a citizens group that its constitutional amendment will pass in June.

The amendment, which would restrict state or local governments from taking private land for economic development, will be voted on by the public in June if 26,688 signatures are gathered by March. Heidi Heitkamp, a former attorney general leading the initiative, said she is confident that it will happen.

Some legislators and special-interest groups want the issue to be studied and voted on by the Legislature before action is taken, but Heitkamp said the amendment was well thought out.

"I don't know what more you want to find out in determining if you want a constitutional amendment or not?" Heitkamp asked Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, who is chairman of the Judicial Process Committee.

Legislators wouldn't be able to act on the issue until January 2007, unless a special session of the Legislature was called.

Lyson said the study is being done to determine if changing laws through the Legislature is a better way to go.

"We should get all the information out there so we can do it the right way with everything on the table," Lyson said.

The committee met Monday to discuss eminent domain, which has been a hot topic since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can take private property for economic development.

In Kelo vs. New London, the court ruled 5-4 that the city of New London, Conn., did not violate the Constitution by using eminent domain to take property for a commercial development.

Heitkamp said states can prevent the taking of private property for economic development, but separate legislation will be needed in Congress to prevent the federal government from doing the same.

All of the people who testified at Monday's meeting advocated changes to eminent domain laws, but some were wary about changing the state Constitution through an initiated measure.

Claus Lembke, executive vice president of the North Dakota Association of Realtors, said the association is not opposed to changes, but its members want more time to give their input.

Lembke said there is concern the amendment could stifle the growth of cities.

"As a matter of fact, we are very, very scared about this proposal," Lembke said.

Myron Atkinson, a former legislator from Bismarck, said people should be careful when considering amendments to the state or U.S. constitutions.

Atkinson said the proposed amendment is extremely broad and restrictive.

Curly Haugland, a representative of the Landowners Association of North Dakota, said the initiated measure will create a forum for discussion.

"There is no better forum than the 26,000 or more citizens that will have to be convinced to put it on the ballot,"Haugland said.

The Landowners Association is working with Heitkamp to get the initiative approved.

Bismark Tribune: www.bismarcktribune.com