Williams co-sponsors bill that would change eminent domain: Main Line Life OnLine (Ft Washington PA), 10/13/05

By Cheryl Allison

State Sen. Connie Williams, whose district includes Ardmore, has joined the ranks of Pennsylvania lawmakers weighing in on the use of eminent domain powers for redevelopment.

Williams (D-17), is a co-sponsor of SB 881, recently introduced by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-15), which would enact new, more specific limitations on the use of governments' powers to take private property. It also seeks to restrict the use of eminent domain in redevelopment areas, and revise the definition of blight used to designate such areas. The current definition in state law has been criticized as too vague and subjective.

In an interview this week, however, Williams said the legislation, if passed, would likely have no impact on the situation in Ardmore, where Lower Merion Township's potential use of eminent domain for redevelopment of the downtown has been a divisive issue.

The legislation would not be retroactive, she said, so it would not affect the findings of blight which led to the designation of the Ardmore Redevelopment Area. And, under an exception included in the proposed law, the transfer of private properties to a developer might be permissible.

The Senate bill is one of several proposals to provide stronger state protections against eminent domain abuse introduced in the wake of the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Kelo v. City of New London case this summer. The decision, by a narrow 5-4 margin, upheld a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the city could take a number of homes for a private development project because it served a "public purpose" of economic development.

In issuing its decision, however, the court affirmed that Congress and state legislatures could provide property owners greater protections if they so choose.

Some bills, including two Pennsylvania House bills introduced by Rep. Thomas Yewcic (D-72) and co-sponsored by more than a hundred other House members, would have flatly prohibited municipalities from taking property to turn it over to a "nonpublic interest" or solely to "add to or increase the tax base."

In public hearings this summer, there was testimony that eminent domain powers should be available to governments in some cases. There was agreement, however, that the current definition of blight, under which areas are declared in need of redevelopment, should be significantly tightened.

In the interview, Williams said the Kelo case brought the eminent domain issue to the fore for many legislators. "It made us all get back and look at what eminent domain means." She also said she agreed that a better definition of blight is needed.

Williams said, however, that she thinks some of the House bills "overstep their bounds." She decided to support Piccola's bill because, "I felt it was concise and workable."

Williams pointed out that her district includes areas such as Norristown and parts of Delaware County in addition to Ardmore and Lower Merion. The bill, while prohibiting the use of eminent domain for private business, includes some exceptions and a much more specific definition of blight that could help communities like Norristown deal with persistent problems.

For example, the bill's provisions for eminent domain in redevelopment areas would permit governments to take individual properties that are abandoned or in such poor physical condition that they are deemed a public nuisance. Multiple properties could be taken, and an area declared blighted, if a majority of properties meet the definitions.

In Ardmore's case, the finding of blight in the downtown might not have been possible under those definitions.

In addition, one exception to the restriction on taking properties for private business might apply to Lower Merion's plan to potentially take and demolish several existing business properties on Lancaster Avenue, she said.

The exception says that properties could be transferred to a "private entity that occupies an incidental area within a public project, such as a retail establishment on the ground floor of a public building." Lower Merion's redevelopment plan envisions building a parking garage for the new Ardmore Transit Center, with new retail storefronts and upstairs apartments facing Lancaster Avenue.

In Norristown, officials are trying to get retail on the ground floor of garages that might otherwise "ruin a streetscape." The proposed legislation "certainly helps Norristown," Williams said.

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