By Jeff Ortega
Critics of government's ability to take private property for limited uses are fearful in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that opponents say allows government to take property and give it to a private business.
There are at least two measures pending in the Ohio Senate and one in the Ohio House of Representatives that backers say would help prevent this kind of decision in Ohio.
Bills filed in the Senate and House would place a moratorium on eminent domain in Ohio that would take property from one owner and give it to another private owner, and would create a task force to study the issue further.
The Senate measure, a proposed constitutional amendment, would ban eminent domain except where it's granted by state lawmakers.
"We believe ... that we need to act to slow down the process," said state Sen. Timothy Grendell, a Chesterland Republican who sponsored the bill that would create an eminent domain for private development moratorium. The bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Zurz, an Akron-area Democrat.
Grendell said time must be taken to study eminent domain and its use in Ohio in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling June 23.
The Supreme Court decision upheld the right of the New London, Conn., city government to seize property for private development that city leaders say would generate more tax revenue.
What's in the proposal
According to a legislative analysis, the Senate bill would place a moratorium on eminent domain for private development until Dec. 31, 2006.
Under the measure, any state or local government during that time may not take, without the owner's consent, private property that is in an unblighted area if the primary purpose is economic development that would ultimately result in giving the property to another private owner.
The bill also would create a legislative task force to study eminent domain and its impact on land-use planning.
The proposed task force would examine eminent domain from three perspectives: impact on land use; the specific impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the use of eminent domain in Ohio; and state laws related to the issue, according to the bill analysis.
The proposed task force would have to report its findings to the state Legislature by April 1, 2006, under the Senate measure.
The proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate the Ohio Constitution's grant of eminent domain authority to cities and villages, according to an analysis by researchers.
The proposal would instead provide that cities and villages don't have the authority to take private property for public use through eminent domain unless state lawmakers confer that authority.
To get a proposed constitutional amendment before voters through the Legislature, a proposal requires approval from three-fifths of each legislative chamber: 60 of 99 members in the Ohio House and 20 of 33 members in the Senate.
The Ohio Municipal League, which represents the interests of cities and villages, isn't opposed to the House and Senate bills.
"It's a temporary moratorium," said John Mahoney, OML deputy director. "I don't think it'll harm ongoing projects."
But the league is concerned about the proposed constitutional amendment, Mahoney said, saying it's too broadly drawn. Mahoney said the power of eminent domain is vital to cities and villages, adding that it's not an option local public officials take lightly.
Last week, several people spoke out at a Senate hearing on eminent domain.
Joe Barker, a farmer from rural Paulding County in northwest Ohio, said he has been battling what he described as threats of eminent domain to take a portion of land from one of his farms for a railroad spur.
"How can a railroad, CIC [Community Improvement Corporation], County Economic Development office or municipality determine that one person's small business is more important than another's business?" Barker asked the Senate State & Local Government & Veterans Affairs Committee, which had hearings on the Senate bill and proposed constitutional amendment.
House Speaker Pro Tem Charles Blasdel of East Liverpool, the No. 2 House Republican, said he believes something needs to be done to protect property owners.
House GOP leaders are to meet next week and Blasdel said he believes the eminent domain-related proposals will likely be discussed.
"Given the U.S. Supreme Court decision, I think it's something we need to look at and make sure property owners in Ohio are protected," Blasdel said.
Gov. Bob Taft has not taken a position on any eminent domain-related measures pending in the Legislature, Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said.
But, in general, the governor believes a study of eminent-domain laws is necessary, Rickel said.
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