A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June started a nationwide uproar. In a 5-4 decision the justices ruled it was OK for the city of New London, Conn., to seize 15 homes in a working-class neighborhood so a private developer could build a riverfront hotel and office complex.
There were no problems with the homes they weren’t abandoned. They were not in a blighted area. But in the majority opinion penned by Justice John Paul Stevens, the city’s need for greater tax revenue was sufficient for it to take over the homes of its residents.
Pennsylvanians witnessed similar government activity when Coatesville went outside its city limits to usurp 48 acres of a former Drexel Hill couple’s farm to put in a golf course.
Reacting to that affront to individual rights, the Pennsylvania Legislature enacted a law to prevent municipalities from straying outside their boundaries to take over someone’s property.
Now our state legislators are considering laws to prevent local governments from padding their tax coffers at the expense of hard-working, taxpaying residents when a more lucrative tax entity appears on the scene.
On the first day of November, the House passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Glenn Grell, R-Hampden Township, to amend Pennsylvania’s eminent domain law.
Grell’s bill prevents the seizure of private property for use by a private developer unless the owner consents or the property is blighted.
The bill describes a blighted property as one that threatens health or safety, is abandoned or tax delinquent. The bill further requires a majority of the area to be blighted before redevelopment can be considered.
Now the matter goes to the Pennsylvania Senate, where Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, is the main sponsor of a bill to narrow the definition of blight. Current law allows seizure of properties deemed "blighted" if put to "economically undesirable" uses a broad description open to a number of interpretations.
Originally slated for vote before the Thanksgiving recess, Senate Bill 881 is now scheduled for an early December ruling. But the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities wants to slow down the legislative process and Sen. Connie Williams, D-17th, agrees.
Earlier this month she asked to have her name removed from the bill to change eminent domain laws.
"..when I removed my name it was clear to me that the bill sponsor was more interested in fast-tracking his legislation than in fully exploring the issue and the use of eminent domain in Pennsylvania," she wrote in a letter sent to this newspaper.
Since the Supreme Court decision, Alabama, Texas and Delaware enacted laws that tighten the power of eminent domain in their states. Thirty states, including Pennsylvania, are considering similar legislation.
In a frightening reaction to the June ruling, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would shift eminent domain decision-making from the local and state level to the federal level. Hopefully, the U.S. Senate will not have a similar knee-jerk reaction. This is not a matter that belongs in Washington, D.C.
Williams is correct in asking for careful consideration of the implications of new restrictions in eminent domain law. Philadelphia officials fear the House bill will hamstring them in any attempt at redevelopment. But, eminent domain should not fall through the same cracks many important pieces of legislation have found in this state recently.
The Senate must agree on a bill that gives municipalities rights, but not to the degree exercised in Connecticut. Elected leaders must act as just that - leaders - to ensure Pennsylvania joins the ranks of those states which have already recognized the need to protect citizens.
The new law deserves careful study, but not at the risk of inaction. It is one more area an electorate lately re-awakened to the activity in Harrisburg should monitor.
Delaware County Times: www.zwire.com