Six months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled governments could condemn private property for economic development, sweeping changes in Georgia's eminent domain laws are all but inevitable in the 2006 Georgia General Assembly, several key lawmakers say.
Already awaiting legislators on Jan. 9 are five anti-eminent domain bills, one of which passed the Senate in 2005.
On the table is an issue that strikes at the heart of the American dream: the ability of hundreds of local governments and dozens of nongovernmental "authorities" to take property from landowners, with compensation, to pave the way not only for roads and power lines but also for city halls, shopping centers, condos and parking decks.
The man in charge of deciding which bills will be heard on the Georgia Senate floor, Sen. Don Balfour, promises authorities will be severely limited in their powers after the session. Groups with that power range from the Georgia Ports Authority to numerous city development authorities.
"They, very quickly, will not have eminent domain," said Balfour, a Republican from Snellville who serves as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. "There's no reason why nonelected officials should have the power of eminent domain."
Others agree. State Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah, the Republican chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said the state's authorities "see the writing on the wall."
"We're going to drop the hammer on them," he said.
If they are successful, that would be one massive hammer. Any anti-authority bill would likely see strong resistance from local governments and the groups that represent those governments, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA spokeswoman Amy Henderson said the group will be actively involved with lawmakers to ensure they pass tempered bills.
Then there are the authorities themselves. Public housing authorities, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the North Georgia Mountains Authority, hospital authorities and many more have the power.
Senators and representatives involved with limiting those powers contend there are concrete reasons other than politics that warrant tough legislation.
In one case just gaining momentum, International Paper Co. (NYSE: IP) wants to sell a 2,630-acre property in Effingham County to a residential developer. But the Effingham County Economic Development Authority has stepped in, seeking condemnation powers for an industrial park. The authority said it needs the land to prepare for population growth in the county, located near Savannah. The authority in December proposed a price of $31 million, according to a report in the Effingham Herald, but Stephens said Industrial Paper would get more for the residential project.
In another case, the city of Stockbridge (25 miles south of Atlanta) and its development authority are under fire for a plan to condemn four properties in the town so the city could build a new city hall and parking deck. Two of those property owners, Mark Meeks and Donna Bell Mayo, are fighting the plan.
"It's going to be a touchy subject," Stephens said. "It's clear, though, that in recent weeks, economic development authorities are abusing their power. And they will be reined in with legislation."
Balfour went on a several-months long tour of the state late last year with other lawmakers, hearing concerns from both sides of the issue. He and freshman Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, co-sponsored Senate Bill 86 in 2005, which is expected to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee for a final vote this year. The bill, which passed the Senate 40-10, prohibits using eminent domain for most economic development purposes.
Chapman says eminent domain will be the most important issue the General Assembly will tackle in 2006 and sees a "sense of urgency" in lawmakers' desires to pass meaningful legislation. He predicts many lawmakers, including some Democrats, will want to get their names on anti-eminent domain bills.
Balfour said the House will "have a tough time voting against this bill."
One person voting against Senate Bill 86 was state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat whose district includes the low-income area of East Point as well as upscale Buckhead. He warns against taking too many powers away from authorities.
But even he agrees the issue of eminent domain needs to be looked at. In particular, Fort is interested in tweaking the definition of "blight." He and others believe low-income people are in danger of being abused by loose definitions.
Despite his objections to Senate Bill 86, Fort believes substantial legislation will be passed in 2006.
"You can bet your bottom dollar they're going to respond to their constituents," Fort said. "I just hope it will be done in a thoughtful way."
Others voting against Senate Bill 86 were Democrats Ed Harbison, George Hooks, Michael M.V. Bremen, Doug Stoner, Horacena Tate, Curt Thompson, Steve Thompson and Republicans Jack Hill and Jeff Mullis.
As Senate Bill 86 is debated, other bills will likely trickle in as well, lawmakers say. Already prefiled are House bills 943 and 960, both of which severely limit the use of eminent domain, and House resolutions 1036 and 1037, which seek amendments to the state's constitution.
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