Eminent domain’s defenders go to work: Kansas City (KS) Star, 12/20/05

By Kevin Collison

Missouri opponents of eminent domain may open a second front, and the potential new challenge rattled the board of the Economic Development Corp. last week.

In a lengthy discussion of the difficulties that economic development agencies expect to face next year in the Missouri General Assembly — chiefly an assault on eminent domain and tax-increment financing — Spencer Thomson, a development attorney at Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, tossed a new grenade.

“There is a movement to put before the public a referendum petition to see major curtailment of the use of eminent domain,” Thomson said. “It would be extremely detrimental.”

Thomson, who serves on Gov. Matt Blunt’s eminent-domain task force, said the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based Libertarian public-interest group, was behind the effort.

Kansas City economic development officials have lobbied state lawmakers to soften some of the proposed legislation that would change eminent-domain laws after the furor over last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London. The officials say they think they’ve had some success in convincing lawmakers that eminent domain is a vital economic development tool, but they were alarmed by the possibility raised by Thomson that the issue could bypass the legislature and go directly onto the ballot.

“We need a new dialogue with the public,” said Peter Yelorda, chairman of the Tax Increment Financing Commission. “The Institute for Justice is playing to fears that big government will take your property. They don’t understand the economic issues involved. … If it goes to the public, we’re in trouble.”

Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, said his organization does not organize petition drives directly, but would support a local effort.

That local effort may be led by Missouri First, which supports a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. The group’s Web site, www.mofirst.org, says the group is “dedicated to the sovereignty of Missourians.”

Ron Calzone, a director of Missouri First from Dixon, said his group was “strongly contemplating” a petition effort.

“The General Assembly is subject to politics, and a lot of people with special interests have less than the peoples’ interest in mind,” Calzone said. “This is a populist issue. … We think that whatever the General Assembly decides to do, the people will make sure something happens.”

Calzone said his group was not opposed to eminent domain for needs such as bridges, roads and other uses that are “genuinely publicly owned and used facilities.”

EDC board members said they think that if Missouri eliminates the use of eminent domain for development projects properly defined as being beneficial to the overall public, such as the downtown redevelopment under way, the state will suffer. “We will put ourselves at a tremendous disadvantage to other states,” said Gary Sage, chairman of the EDC’s legislative committee.

Kansas City Star: www.kansascity.com