State lawmaker wants eminent domain limits: Billings (MT) Gazette, 11/5/05

By Jennifer McKee

A Republican lawmaker wants to change the Montana Constitution to prohibit government from condemning private property for urban renewal or economic development projects. However, his efforts would leave untouched government's ability to seize private property for railroads, mines or smelter dumping grounds.

Rep. Rick Maedje, of Fortine, submitted to legislative lawyers Thursday his proposed change to the Montana Constitution. The move is the first step toward getting a proposed constitutional amendment placed on the ballot for voter approval or disapproval.

"You don't lose private property rights by one cut," Maedje said. "It's by a thousand nicks of the blade."

His proposal prohibits all nonfederal government entities from seizing and buying private property for the following reasons:
  • To increase tax revenues.
  • For economic development.
  • For urban renewal projects.
  • To create or preserve natural areas, recreation areas or facilities.
  • To protect viewsheds.

Maedje said the motivation behind the amendment was a June U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the town of New London, Conn., to condemn and buy downtown homes to build a private real estate development. The development would generate more tax revenues for the town than the older homes. The nation's top court ruled against the homeowners, creating controversy nationwide.

Montana law allows state and local government to condemn and buy private property for a long list of public and private uses, a power called "eminent domain." Protecting viewsheds, increasing tax revenues and economic development are not listed among allowable eminent domain uses in Montana.

However, the state and local governments can use eminent domain to take private property for roads, sewers and other projects. The law also allows government to take private property for railroads and dumping grounds for mines and smelters or temporary logging roads.

Under eminent domain, the government must pay the original property owners the fair market value of their land, plus legal fees.

Maedje said that because Montana already has a long list of allowable uses of eminent domain, it made more sense to list the five things he thinks should be constitutionally prohibited. If people later decide more things should be prohibited, they can change the constitution then.

He said he picked those five because they have the most potential for abuse.

House Democratic Leader Dave Wanzenried, of Missoula, said he supported Maedje's early efforts because they will prompt a good discussion among lawmakers and Montanans about eminent domain and whether something like the Connecticut situation could ever happen here.

Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said he didn't think Montanans had much to worry about. The Connecticut case stemmed from a Connecticut law that allowed eminent domain seizures for economic development.

That's already prohibited here, he said.

"It doesn't really apply," Hansen said. "Montana is one of a group of states that do not have the power of eminent domain for economic development."

Billings Gazette: www.billingsgazette.com