Realtors Urge Eminant Domain Reform: Georgia Association of Realtors

Position Statement

By Jan Baker

The Georgia Association of Realtors is an 85-year-old organization made up of more than 36,000 residential and commercial Realtors throughout the state. Our primary mission is the protection and preservation of private property rights in Georgia.

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its now infamous eminent domain decision this summer, we quickly reviewed the ruling and concluded, as did most reasonable people, that it represented an almost unthinkable blow to our traditional understanding of private property rights.

Historically, most of us have understood – and accepted – that governmental entities at the local, state and federal levels exercise the power of eminent domain to take private property for important public uses, including public schools, roads, bridges and the like. Few if any landowners ever like having their property seized by eminent domain, but most of us acknowledge that in rare cases there are legitimate public purposes for which the use of that power is appropriate.

But the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London changes all that... Now, local governments can seize private property for much broader public uses, including the elimination of so-called “blighted” properties and the enhancement of tax bases, and, worst of all, then transfer that property to another private party.

Now, in the United States of America, a nation whose founding principles included private property rights, landowners can have their homes and businesses seized not just to make way for a new elementary school or library, but to help facilitate a larger private development whose value will add to the tax digest of a local community.

Like virtually all political leaders who spoke out following the Supreme Court decision, Georgia’s Realtors were shocked by this decision and believe that the Georgia General Assembly must act quickly and decisively to shut this loophole once and for all. We applaud the Governor and those leaders who have stepped up to address the issue and those who have indicated a willingness to work with us on righting this wrong.

From reading the press coverage following the decision, you might think it is a forgone conclusion that corrective action will be taken as soon as the legislature convenes in January. While we certainly hope that is the case, the Realtors do not believe we can or should take it for granted that that will occur. Groups such as the Georgia Municipal Association are engaging in a campaign to keep this loophole open.

We believe that a failure to explicitly define, and curb, the eminent domain powers of our state and local governments would prove to be a very grave error that will haunt current and future Georgia property owners for decades to come.

We have already seen a New London eminent domain nightmare begin to play out in the Henry County City of Stockbridge, where the city government is seizing both homes and small businesses in the downtown area to facilitate not just the construction of new public buildings, but new – and higher value – private development as well. We have also seen the beginnings of an effort by local elected officials, including the leaders in Smyrna, to justify the kinds of eminent domain powers conferred by the Supreme Court.

On its Web site, the Georgia Municipal Association has posted a remarkably ambiguous position paper arguing that Georgia is a state that “does it right” when it comes to eminent domain and that the state legislature does not need to rush to correct a problem that GMA suggests does not exist. That, of course, was before the Stockbridge case burst into the headlines. We wonder if they still feel that way.

For all these reasons, the Georgia Association of Realtors is launching ... a campaign to close the New London eminent domain loophole in Georgia by passing legislation that will limit the eminent domain powers of state and local governmental entities to a very explicit set of public uses.

At this point, we are favoring a Constitutional amendment on the ballot for the 2006 General Election next November, and to do that the General Assembly will have to pass an appropriate resolution at the 2006 General Assembly.

This campaign will have a number of specific components.

First, we will be working to mobilize all 36,000 Realtors throughout Georgia. We will encourage them to let their local legislators know their views on this issue. At the same time, Realtors will play a key role in educating property owners in their communities about the importance of this issue and encouraging them to communicate with their elected officials about the issue.

As part of the local Realtors involvement in this campaign, you can expect to see yard signs and bumper stickers bearing logos such as these throughout Georgia.

The second component is that ... we will launch a radio advertising campaign in major markets throughout the state to build awareness of the issue and to generate support for closing the New London loophole once and for all. As a final legislative proposal is developed, the advertising will be refined to build support for the specific legislation we will need to pass in order to get this issue before the Georgia voters in November of 2006...

Another objective of the advertising will be to drive listeners to a new Web site, which is the third component of this campaign. We have ... launched a Web site at www.protectGAprivateproperty.com. The Georgia Association of Realtors is establishing this as a separate site to provide information about this issue and to give Georgia property owners and voters an easy way to get involved. Among other things, Georgia property owners will be able to register online in support of protecting private property and to let their legislators know of their support for legislation closing the New London loophole.

We believe this campaign can be successful and that it will protect Georgia’s property owners from uses of eminent domain that were never contemplated when the power was first conceived. We believe that it will only succeed with the active involvement and support of the property owners across this state. We believe that Georgia can lead the nation by setting an example of how a state should work to protect private property rights.

We mean no disrespect to the good and well-intentioned people who serve in our local governments. But it is almost a law of nature that there will be those governments like Stockbridge, granted new power or authority, which will abuse that power and fight to keep it.

Our legislators, county commissioners, city council members and others need to hear Georgians speak as one on this issue, and the Georgia Association of Realtors is proud to take a leadership role on this most critical issue.

Georgia Association of Realtors: www.garealtor.com

Jan Baker is president of the Georgia Association of Realtors