Business groups and lawmakers join forces to tighten eminent domain rules: Ft Madison (IA) Daily Democrat, 1/2/06

By Gerry Baksys

If you go next door to ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar, chances are that you will get it. If you ask for the deed to their house so you can develop a Wal-Mart, you might not be so lucky.

However, because local and state officials can seize your property to do just that, state lawmakers - with the backing of several business groups - are planning legislation to prevent that from happening.

Under the Iowa and federal Constitutions, the government has the right to seize private property -with just compensation - for ‘the public good.' This practice is called “eminent domain,” and has been used for years to build or fix public properties like streets, parks, or highways.

However, when New Haven, Conn. decided to seize private residences in order to give that property to a private developer, a huge lawsuit arose. The case ultimately went before the United States Supreme Court who, in a 5-4 vote, upheld the city's right to use eminent domain in that instance.

The repercussions of that decision have sent numerous state legislators scrambling to enact laws that would limit the use of eminent domain in their states. Iowa is no different.

According to House Democrat Phil Wise, legislation is already being planned - even before the session starts - to limit the use of eminent domain in Iowa.

“I am working with a bipartisan group to craft legislation to make modifications in Iowa's eminent domain law,” Wise said. “It is in response to the Supreme Court decision in which they made it clear that the notion of public good can be very broadly construed. Some of us believe too broadly construed.”

Wise added that the goal is not to eliminate the power of eminent domain, but to merely limit it to what he said was its intended purpose.

“Eminent domain historically has been used for two things,” Wise said, “One is for the public-good projects like highways or streets, things of that nature. And it has been used in areas that have been designated as blighted. We are trying to find a balance of what is really for the public good. The taking of private property by government is a very powerful tool that needs to be used sparingly.”

Republican House member Dave Heaton agreed. He said that eminent domain should only be used in very specific circumstances, and not for giving private property to private developers.

“I don't have a problem with eminent domain for public projects,” Heaton said. “But I do have a problem when it is used to acquire the land and then hand it to another person for private development. That will be difficult to define. So I look forward to a lot of discussions on this topic.”

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