Local reps part of panel looking into eminent domain laws: Roanoak Rapids (NC) Daily Herald, 1/7/06

By Amy Lotven

Two local members of the N.C. House of Representatives are currently reviewing the state's controversial right to take property from a private landowner for public use.

Rep. Lucy Allen and Rep. Edward Jones are part of a legislative committee examining the eminent domain process, which goes back to English common law and gives the government the authority to take private land in exchange for compensation.

They will consider ways to protect the government's right to take land when necessary, while also protecting landowner rights.

Allen said the first committee meeting consisted mainly of reviewing North Carolina's eminent domain laws and comparing them to other states. “It was educational,” she said.

Allen and Jones are both members of the House Select Committee on Eminent Domain Powers that met Thursday morning in Raleigh. The panel has been asked to recommend to the full General Assembly, when it reconvenes in May, whether to make changes to North Carolina's eminent domain statutes or the state constitution.

The committee was created in response to last year's controversial Supreme Court decision that allowed a Connecticut town to take over citizens' private property as part of a large-scale economic development plan, which included a hotel and other amenities that would be owned and operated by a private entity.

The town had determined that the higher tax base created by the development constitutes a greater “public purpose,” therefore justifying eminent domain, and the majority agreed.

The 5-4 decision, later called “scary” by former Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, who penned the dissenting argument, created a public outcry and prompted many states to take a second look at their own eminent domain statutes.

The overwhelming fear, also voiced by O'Connor and Judge Clarence Thomas, is that the decision erases any definition of “public use” and leaves any property open for the taking if a government deems it is somehow for the public good.

Thomas also noted that the law would disproportionately affect the poor. “The consequences of today's decision are not difficult to predict, and promise to be harmful,” he wrote in his dissent.

“So-called ‘urban renewal' programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes. Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities.”

Ed Jones is also concerned how the law affects such communities. “We need to look out for the little person and define what is a blight,” he told the Daily Herald. “If the government wants to knock down the private home of a person with little resources and replace it with an apartment complex, it may increase the tax base and give people more places to live, but it may not fit the definition of public purpose,” he said.

Declaring a neighborhood or area as “blighted” is one reason often given for taking away private land. Jones said his understanding of blight is that it has to do with the health and safety, rather than the with monetary value of the property.

North Carolina law lays out nine conditions under which cities and counties can condemn private land, including the creation or expansion of roads, parks, sewer lines and government buildings. It does not include private development.

Jones said the meeting consisted mainly of reading over definitions and trying to set the ground rules for the discussion. “We still don't know where we're going with it,” he said. “It's so complex.”

Panelists asked the legislative staff to provide more information at the next meeting, for which a date has not been set, regarding how property values are determined when the government compensates owners for seized property.

The Daily Herald: www.rrdailyherald.com