Whose Domain? Allentown (PA) Morning Call, 12/4/05

Pennsylvania can break new ground in protecting property owners from abusive land-takings

By Steven Anderson and Dana Berliner

Pennsylvania is poised to become the first state to effectively rein in eminent domain abuse.

Very shortly in Harrisburg, the Senate will vote on S.B. 881, the Property Rights Protection Act, a thoughtful response to the tragic U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London and Pennsylvania's horrible history of using the power of government to transfer homes and small businesses to well-connected developers.

As the nation's leading advocate for owners affected by eminent domain for private development, we've seen a number of reform bills introduced and signed into law. None has come close to the sensible reforms now introduced by Sen.Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, and 26 co-sponsors. Unfortunately, those who want no limits on eminent domain are plying their considerable influence — they've already gotten the Senate vote on the bill postponed — to sabotage any real reform.

The current bill does two simple things: it prohibits the use of eminent domain for commercial development and tightens the definition of blight. Under current law, an area can be razed if only 10 or 15 percent of its buildings have supposed "blight," and the standards for determining blight are lax. Instead, the reform bill would require a majority of the property in an area be truly blighted to use eminent domain.

Cities would retain considerable leeway in blighted areas under the new law, as well as the long-standing ability to condemn abandoned, dangerous or severely tax delinquent properties.

To be sure, the bill could be even stronger. But it strikes a reasonable balance by preserving municipalities' ability to address real problems, while giving property owners much-needed protections.

For too long, overzealous local governments, armed with fancy conceptual drawings and the studies paid for by self-interested developers, have threatened property owners in Pennsylvania with eminent domain for private profit.

For example, the Ardmore Historic Business District, including Scott Mahan's third-generation office supply store, Eni and Betty Foo's Chinese restaurant and the VFW and American Legion posts, may be leveled for newer, sterile stores and condominiums. Peter and Robin West's art studio and home in Washington could be razed for a retail, commercial and residential development. Coatesville residents Dick and Nancy Saha spent six years and the bulk of their retirement savings to prevent their family farm from becoming a golf course.

The proposed new bill would help end such abuses, but will leave untouched local governments' ability to acquire property to build everything traditionally considered a public use, like roads, bridges, schools and courthouses. They can still build water mains and power and sewer lines.

Cities will still have the power of eminent domain, but they wouldn't be able to use that power just because private developers want to make more money with other people's land. Development will still occur, but it will occur as the result of private negotiation, not by government force.

Under current law, any home, small businesses, church, farm or other property can be taken if it is deemed "economically undesirable," and opponents of the reform bill-those, such as developers and municipalities, whose reaction can be measured by the power they stand to lose, have suggested that any reform effort make an exception for "economic blight."

What both terms really mean is someone else has a plan for your property that forecasts greater tax revenue. As a result, no one's property would be safe — anyone's home or small business could make more money as a luxury condominium or a big-box store.

To allow property to be taken for those reasons would render the protections in the reform bill worthless.

Americans everywhere have voiced near-universal disapproval with the Kelo decision and the unfettered ability of government to take property from one person only to give it to someone else with more money or better connections. This bill shouldn't be hijacked by the special interests that are interested only in fattening their wallets or tax coffers. Pennsylvania, a battleground for rights throughout this nation's history, has the chance to restore the most basic right of all, the right to keep what you own. Citizens should tell their elected representatives not to let the opportunity for real reform go by.

The Morning Call: www.mcall.com

Steven Anderson is the coordinator of the Castle Coalition, a nationwide network of citizen activists fighting eminent domain abuse.

Dana Berliner is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a legal advocate against eminent domain abuse.