Preliminary eminent domain report released: Rolla (MO) Daily News, 10/9/05

By Janese Heavin

Recommendations made by the State Eminent Domain Task Force shouldn’t affect the City of Rolla’s ability to use eminent domain to redevelop the corner of Highways 63 and 72, said John Peterson, city development director.

The task force — created by Gov. Matt Blunt following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the City of New London, Conn., to take a home for private development — has heard suggestions from experts and is slated to make formal recommendations to the governor Dec. 31.

One suggestion in the task force’s preliminary report is that the legislature pass a bill prohibiting private to private transfer for economic development to increase tax revenue.

In Rolla, eminent domain could be used to acquire property needed for the Sansone Group to redevelop the Highway 63, 72 area. City officials have said they will avoid using eminent domain if possible but reserve the right to do so if necessary to complete the project.

The development area includes 10 acres starting at the former Callens and extending eastward down Highway 72, plus four more acres south on Highway 63 to Williams Road.

If the state passed a law prohibiting eminent domain from being used for economic development, Peterson said it would not hurt the Sansone Group’s chances of building a shopping center at that corner because Missouri law allows eminent domain to be used to eliminate blight.

But it’s the state’s loose definition of blight that allows entities to abuse eminent domain powers, a panelist told the state task force.

Missouri is one of the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation, according to Stephen Anderson, Castle Coalition Coordinator for the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., who made a presentation to the task force. Anderson said the abuse is made possible by the state’s current definition of blight. Statutes are so vague that virtually any property could be considered blighted enough on some level to allow for use of condemnation, he said.

The eminent domain task force has not yet recommended that the state change its definition of “blight.” The group will address blight in its final report, which is due Dec. 31.

Even if the state tightens the definition of blight, Peterson said he doesn’t think the Rolla redevelopment would be affected.

“That area’s a poster child for blight if I’ve ever seen one,” he said. “Not every parcel has to be considered blighted for an area to be blighted as a whole.”

The Rolla City Council has reserved the right to use eminent domain to take the 10 acres along Highway 72 but has said eminent domain should not be used on the four acres along Highway 63.

City Administrator John Butz said the council could reverse that decision with a future vote, if necessary. That decision would be made by the council, not the Tax Increment Financing [TIF] Commission, he said.

The TIF Commission’s responsibility is to determine if the redevelopment plan is feasible, Butz said. The commission does not address or make decisions regarding the use of eminent domain nor does it determine how many acres should be included in the final plan, he said.

Eminent domain has been a hot topic of state and federal discussion since the Kelso decision this summer.

Federal lawmakers have eyed a proposal that would withhold federal funds from entities that abuse eminent domain.

Some states have already passed new laws since the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In Ohio, the Senate unanimously approved a bill designed to prohibit state and local governments from taking property for use by private developers until 2007. The measure comes as the Ohio Supreme Court considers a case involving a suburban Cincinnati city’s takeover of a neighborhood it said was deteriorating, The Associated Press reported.

Texas passed a similar law in August.

Gov. Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson stopped short of guaranteeing that Missourians can expect an eminent domain bill this coming session.

“While his legislative agenda hasn’t been finalized, the governor remains concerned about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and is actively working to ensure that what happened in Connecticut does not happen anywhere in Missouri,” she said. “The governor is proud of the good work this volunteer commission has done to bring attention to this important issue and he looks forward to studying their recommendations.”

State Rep. Bob May said eminent domain is a concern he has had for several years.

“We need progress, but at what cost?” he said.

May said there are instances where eminent domain is appropriate, however the state should strike a balance between economic development and protecting property rights.

“I don’t think you could really eliminate use of eminent domain, but we need to be very careful not to repeat abuses that have happened,” he said. “It has to be (a priority) for all of us, and I think it is. Most people, when you talk about individual property rights, say yeah, we have to address it and be fair to people.”

Rolla Daily News: www.therolladailynews.com