By Jim Miller, League of Minnesota Cities
State Auditor Pat Anderson's recent commentary piece "Minnesota Needs to Restore Fairness to Eminent Domain Power" (Aug. 10, The Pilot-Independent) presents an alarming, but distorted interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Kelo vs. New London ruling. It is also inaccurate in two very important respects.
Anderson and others assert that the world changed with that ruling; that local governments now have expansive ability to take private property for almost any purpose, with little regard to the owner's rights. In reality, the Court merely reaffirmed long-standing authority to take private property for public purpose, in some instances, by ruling that economic development qualifies as a "public use" under the takings clause of the Constitution. In fact, the ruling is consistent with a number of U.S. Supreme Court and Minnesota Supreme Court decisions rendered over the past several decades. Furthermore, the Court recognized that cities must always have a well-conceived development plan as a basis for exercising eminent domain. In other words, cities cannot decide on a whim to condemn someone's property.
The auditor also claims that local governments determine the compensation property owners receive when their property is taken through the eminent domain process. This implies that property owners can be unfairly compensated for their loss. The exercise of eminent domain demands a highly transparent and judicious process involving open meetings, opportunities for public input and — if necessary — an appeals option. When eminent domain is exercised, just-compensation is rewarded to property owners. What constitutes just-compensation is determined by impartial commissioners or by a jury; not by the city, as Anderson implies.
Historically in our state, eminent domain has been used sparingly as an important economic development and job creation tool that allows cities to respond to community needs, and not as a preferred recourse for "revenue-hungry governments."
In Minnesota, city governments are run by hard-working officials elected by — and accountable to — residents of their local communities. The vast majority of these officials are part-time or full-time businessmen and women, retirees, homemakers, educators and professionals from all walks of life. They are our friends, neighbors and colleagues. They are also homeowners who share with all Americans the value of homeownership.
Rather than aiming to infringe on individual property rights, they work together with constituents to enhance the quality of life in local neighborhoods and communities.
The League of Minnesota Cities believes that this important tool of community development must be preserved. We also recognize that this issue strikes an important chord and deserves more public debate. That debate, however, should be based on the facts, not hyperbole. Over the course of the next legislative session, the League will continue to work with state lawmakers to advance legislation improving the acquisition and eminent domain process in a way that satisfies the needs of local communities and of individual property owners.
League of Minnesota Cities: www.lmnc.org