House debates eminent domain: Jackson (MS) Clarion Ledger, 1/4/06

Bills to restrict use now move to Senate for consideration

By Laura Hipp

The ability of the state, cities and counties to take private property for stores or manufacturing plants would be stopped under a Mississippi House plan approved Tuesday.

But governments could still take an individual's land for roads, utilities and parks.

"A big multibillion company should not be allowed to take your farm, home, church or cemetery to make more money," Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, said.

Franks sponsored two pieces of legislation changing a state statute and the Constitution to restrict the use of eminent domain, which allows the government to take land from private owners. An constitutional amendment would require a statewide vote.

The bills move to the Senate for consideration.

Franks' proposals on eminent domain were a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that declared government could take property for any use — public or private.

Taylorsville resident Mark Bryant wants a tougher law that stops gas and oil companies from taking land as well.

He unsuccessfully fought an oil company last year that wanted a 50-foot section of his family's land. The company took the land through eminent domain proceedings.

"It took away my homesite," said Bryant, who wanted to one day build a house on the Smith County land. "They've got the money to do this, and the private land owner doesn't have the money to fight it."

House Concurrent Resolution 10 calls for a change in the state Constitution to limit eminent domain to only public uses, such as parks, road and utilities. A statewide vote in November would be required. It passed with a 117-1 vote.

House Bill 100 proposes statutory changes that would take effect immediately after approval from the Senate and the governor. It prohibits taking land for retail, commercial or industrial uses. It was approved in a 116-3 House vote.

Rep. Leonard Morris, D-Batesville, who dissented in both votes, said some property owners receive a tax break for shedding land through eminent domain when locating industrial prospects — rather than selling the land directly. He proposed an exemption for industrial uses but lost.

"We are using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat," said Morris, former executive director of North Delta Planning and Development Issues. "We are going to prohibit economic development in this state period."

The Mississippi Development Authority will comply with lawmakers' decision in economic development deals, said spokesman Scott Hamilton.

Senate Judiciary A Chairman Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, said before the House bills were approved that he has not studied the House proposals but plans to offer his own.

Last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision "goes way too far" in granting government the power to seize private property, Ross said.

His proposal would require eminent domain to be allowed only when the government seizes property for direct public use.

For instance, Ross said, using eminent domain to seize land for the purpose of increasing tax revenue would not be a direct public use.

"I believe that strikes the right balance," Ross said. "It's not a radical change from the current law and will continue to provide protection to private property owners."

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