By Diane Mastrull and Angela Couloumbis
Despite warnings that the revitalization of cities and older towns would suffer, the Pennsylvania Senate yesterday passed legislation to limit government's ability to seize private land for economic reasons.
The so-called Property Rights Protection Act, which prohibits the use of eminent domain for private economic development and tightens the definition of blight, was unanimously approved and heads to the House for consideration. The House passed a similar measure last month.
But Senate Bill 881, written by Senate Majority Whip Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), has been considered the leading legislation of several bills pending in Harrisburg aimed at reining in the controversial property condemnation process of eminent domain.
Those efforts, along with others in Congress and in more than 30 states, are in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that expanded the concept of what is a justified use of eminent domain.
In Kelo v. the City of New London, the justices ruled that the Connecticut city could force the sale of homes and businesses in a neighborhood not deemed blighted to make way for private economic development.
What followed were predictions by property rights groups of land grabs by local governments. Lawmakers rushed to their statehouses with proposals aimed at slamming shut a door the justices opened.
"The idea that a citizen's property can be taken by the government and turned over to another citizen for nongovernmental use is simply an outrageous proposition and something that was never intended by our founding fathers," Piccola said in a statement yesterday.
Redevelopment advocacy groups lobbied right up to yesterday's late-afternoon vote to try to get what they considered the most objectionable provisions in the bill stricken. Those included a ban on the use of eminent domain for private investment and a requirement that a majority of a property must be blighted in order for condemnation to be used to acquire it.
Those efforts were fruitless.
"The bill is detrimental to the state as a whole and particularly to our older communities," said Janet Milkman, president of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. "Private investment is the key to their survival and this bill chases it away."
Milkman said her group would now work on getting the House to amend the bill or pass another bill "that better reflects the realities of redevelopment and the actual impact of eminent domain in Pennsylvania."
Among those supporting Piccola's bill is the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a Libertarian public interest, nonprofit law firm that locally has helped Lower Merion residents fight a plan by the township to possibly use eminent domain to revitalize the Ardmore business district.
Steve Anderson, a lawyer with the institute, said the Piccola bill could serve as a national model for eminent domain legislation in that "it attacks both condemnations for private commercial development and blight."
Gov. Rendell is not yet won over.
"We still believe there is more work to be done," said Rendell spokeswoman Kate Philips. "The governor has said he can support a bill that strikes a fair balance between homeowners' rights and the good of an overall community. Hopefully, we can get something to the governor's desk that does that."
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