State Republicans this morning called for a constitutional amendment limiting the state's ability to seize property for public use.
Prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that broadened the power of eminent domain, Del. David Boschert, one of a host of Republicans in the state House and Senate behind the amendment, said giving government the power to take private property "at any old time" is wrong.
The high court's ruling gave the states permission to set their own specific rules, including a clear definition of what "public use" is. The GOP amendment would say the state can only take land to build roads, schools and libraries. It would not apply to economic development purposes like creating jobs or generating tax revenue.
Mr. Boschert, R-Crownsville, said the General Assembly has to make sure that property owners are given all of the necessary due process before their land or building can be taken.
"I'm a firm believer in property rights protection," Mr. Boschert said.
The proposal would need three-fifths of the legislature's approval, and then the amendment would go on the ballot in the November 2006 gubernatorial election.
Democrats say changing the constitution is not necessary, and property rights can be protected through regular legislation.
Sen. Ed DeGrange Sr., D-Glen Burnie, said he's drafting a bill to address eminent domain for the session that opens in January.
"It's just going to make it through the legislative process" instead of amending the constitution, he said. "If it's passed, you just need a majority, not a super-majority of votes. It would take effect a lot more quickly."
If his bill passes, Mr. DeGrange said the tighter standards would be in effect by July.
The Supreme Court ruling came after an intense debate in 2000 in the assembly over a Baltimore County bill that would let the government seize property for a commercial waterfront development in the name of economic development.
That bill failed, and officials are moving forward with the project without eminent domain.
Businesses around a planned multi-million dollar revitalization in west Baltimore City could also be affected by any change to the law. Mr. DeGrange said small businesses there are worried they will be pushed out.
"Let's face it, the government has attorneys," Mr. DeGrange said, noting that he would wait on recommendations from a business task force before tweaking his bill. "They have the tools in their toolbox and the resources to do this. Small businesses don't have those resources."
Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Crofton, who attended the news conference in Annapolis this morning along with with Dels. John Leopold, R-Pasadena, Tony McConkey, R-Severna Park, and Mr. Boshert, said property rights in general will be a huge issue this year in the assembly session. Every day, she said she gets calls from confused or angry homeowners who aren't allowed to build houses, swimming pools or other improvements because of government regulations - especially on the water.
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard, said eminent domain causes a "reverse Robin Hood effect," stealing from the poor to give to the rich.
"We need to stand up for all Marylanders, not just those with influence and power," he said.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor doesn't take a position on bills until he has reviewed specific legislation, but in general he supports property rights.
Scores of states have been focusing on how to adapt their laws to the Supreme Court ruling. It stems from a Connecticut case where the city of New London wanted to transform 90 acres of property into a commercial development.
Thousands of jobs were lost in the area around Fort Trumbell in 1996, when the Navy's Undersea Warfare Center was closed. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc. wanted to build a large research facility there.
The state's supreme court sided with 15 property owners who sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
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