Eminent domain limits pass House: Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune-Review, 11/2/05

By Mike Wereschagin

The state House voted Tuesday night to curb local governments' power to take private property and give it to another private owner, a controversial practice that has been used several times in Pittsburgh and was deemed legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

"That's one of the big problems, that developers are simply using the government to take private property for their own use," said Kathleen Walsh, 62, of Ridgemont in Pittsburgh's West End.

Five years ago, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority considered labeling part of her verdant hillside neighborhood "blighted," the first step in condemning the homes and making way for a Home Depot adjacent to the Parkway Center Mall, Walsh said.

"This is a neighborhood of nice, middle-class, well-maintained homes," Walsh said. "We have a couple of people here who have been living here since the 1950s. It was just unbelievably terrible for some of the older people."

If the Senate passes the bill, the URA wouldn't be allowed to start the process that haunted Walsh and her neighbors for nearly a year, said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill provides for a few exceptions, such as if the property is abandoned or unsafe, or if the owner consents to having the land condemned. Property can be taken for use by a nonprofit hospital or medical center.

"It will help to stop a lot of the abuses that's occurred around the state," including Mayor Tom Murphy's threats to use eminent domain to oust Downtown businesses to make way for a major developer in the Fifth and Forbes corridor, Metcalfe said.

The public opposition that helped derail Murphy's revitalization plan also caused the URA to back away from its plan to condemn Walsh's neighborhood, she said.

Twelve states have considered laws limiting local eminent domain authority since the Supreme Court, in Kelo v. New London (Conn.), declared it constitutional for local governments to take property from one private owner and give it to another if it would result in increased tax money for a community.

"We need to restore private property rights," Metcalfe said. "I think Kelo v. New London was a wake-up call to the states."

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