By Tim Hoover
Private developers in Missouri should not be allowed to take land from property owners through the process of eminent domain, a task force recommended Wednesday.
Missouri property owners should have more rights and governments should have a greater burden when trying to take private property, it said.
“I think these (recommendations) go a long way toward stopping the abuses we heard testimony on,” said Terry Jarrett, chairman of the Missouri Task Force on Eminent Domain.
One of the most significant recommendations the task force made was to specifically reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Kelo v. New London, Conn., in which the court ruled that taking land for economic development purposes qualified as a “public use.”
The decision riled public opinion nationally and in the Kansas City area, where governments took property to allow the development of the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County and a BMW dealership in Merriam. A 2003 report by the Institute for Justice called the Merriam seizure one of the 10 worst abuses of eminent domain in the nation.
The task force, composed of lawmakers, developers, lawyers and others, agreed that “the public benefits of economic development, including an increase in tax base, tax revenues, employment, or general economic health, standing alone, shall not constitute a public use.”
But the task force also agreed that allowing government to take land that is “blighted” should still be allowed, something that could certainly have economic development benefits.
So what is “blighted”?
The task force had a harder time agreeing on that, ultimately deciding it would be best to say what blight isn’t. The panel agreed that a finding of blight couldn’t be based on whether a higher amount of taxes would be collected on a property or on whether there would be economic development benefits if the land were used differently.
Critics have said that Missouri is one of the worst states in the nation for abuse of eminent domain and that the definition of blight now is so broad that practically anything — including vacant land in the suburbs — qualifies as blighted.
The task force deliberately avoided defining blight because not everyone could agree on a definition and because the panel did not want to “mess up” current law dealing with tax-increment financing projects, said Jarrett, general counsel to Gov. Matt Blunt.
Missouri and New York are the only states that allow private developers to initiate eminent domain proceedings against property owners once a property has been declared blighted.
The panel specifically recommended that the practice stop.
Lawmakers already have filed bills they will push in 2006 that would limit eminent domain. One bill would require that government bodies muster a two-thirds vote before they could condemn a property. Another proposes a constitutional amendment to eliminate government power to declare properties blighted.
The bulk of the task force’s recommendations, if enacted into law, would impose a greater burden on those using eminent domain. Landowners affected by a project would have to be notified early in writing of the possibility of eminent domain, and condemning authorities would have to notify property owners of their rights in the eminent domain process, which would include an opportunity to mediate.
The panel also recommended that condemning authorities be required to act in good faith in negotiations with landowners, and it said courts should have the discretion to penalize the condemning authorities if they don’t.
Finally, courts would have the power to review findings of blight without having to rely on the condemning authority’s decision.
It’s up to lawmakers to decide whether to incorporate the recommendations into legislation in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
Kansas City Star: www.kansascity.com