Eminent domain bill advances: The (Harrisburg PA) Patriot-News, 10/26/05

By Ellen Lyon

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola's legislation to restrict government power to take private property for redevelopment purposes appears to be on a fast track through the Legislature, despite concerns of some economic development officials.

The Senate Majority Policy Committee held a 21/2-hour hearing yesterday on Senate Bill 881 "because we want it to move quickly," said Fred Cabell, chief counsel to Piccola, R-Susquehanna Twp.

The Senate State Government Committee, to which the bill has been referred, could vote on the measure as early as Monday, and it could reach the Senate floor for a full vote by next Wednesday, Cabell said.

An identical bill introduced in the House by state Rep. Glenn Grell, R-Hampden Twp., unanimously passed that chamber's Judiciary Committee yesterday.

The bills would prohibit the use of eminent domain to take private property for private commercial purposes unless the owner consents or the property is blighted.

The legislation would tighten the definition of blighted to mean property that is a threat to health and safety, is abandoned or is tax-delinquent. It also would require that properties in the majority of an area be blighted before that area could be considered for redevelopment. Currently, only 10 percent of an area has to be blighted for it to be considered for redevelopment.

The bills were drafted in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the city of New London, Conn., to seize homes in a working-class neighborhood so a private developer could build a riverfront hotel and office complex.

Representatives of the Pennsylvania Builders Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Pennsylvania State Grange, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a citizens' group testified yesterday in support of Piccola's bill.

But representatives of two economic development authorities and the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities expressed concerns.

Rick Schuettler, deputy executive director of the league, said the Senate is "moving too quickly to pass legislation and relieve public pressure without fully understanding the consequences of the proposed changes to the current law.

"Our main concern lies with passing legislation that does not strike a balance between individual property rights and urban redevelopment projects that truly make an investment for the good of the entire community," he added.

Schuettler wondered if one homeowner should be able to stop a $350 million redevelopment project that benefits the entire community and has community support.

"Our answer is no, and our fear is that Senate Bill 881 may do just that because it prohibits the use of eminent domain if the property to be acquired will be transferred to private commercial enterprise and does not meet its definition of blight," Schuettler said.

"Senate Bill 881 may have the effect of keeping developers away from urban projects for fear of investing time and money in the planning stage only to lose the project because the land cannot be assembled," he added.

Piccola noted that Pennsylvania cities have had unrestricted use of eminent domain for decades, yet they have continued to decline.

Chris Houston, director of real estate development and general counsel for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County, warned that the bill "will interfere with the planned redevelopment of communities throughout the commonwealth."

Herbert Wetzel, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, said the bill would set too high a standard for an area to be considered blighted. "Why must we wait for a neighborhood to be completely overwhelmed?" he asked.

Cabell said later that some "tweaking" of the bill may be needed, but "I don't think there'll be any fundamental changes based on the hearing."

The Patriot-News: www.pennlive.com