Task force seeks to ‘curb abuses’ of eminent domain: Kansas City (MO) Star, 1/11/06

By Mike Rice

A state task force’s new recommendations on eminent domain should help Missouri lawmakers find middle ground on the contentious issue, one of the task force members said last week.

“This report goes a long way in helping the state curb the abuses of eminent domain without throwing the baby out with the bath water,” said Spencer Thomson, the lone Kansas City-area representative on the nine-member task force.

Thomson, a Kansas City development lawyer and Northland resident, spoke about the issue to several dozen members of the Platte County Pachyderm Club last Thursday.

The task force recently submitted a report to Gov. Matt Blunt with 18 recommendations, including prohibiting governments from using condemnation solely for economic development and allowing property owners greater access to the courts.

Republican leaders in the Missouri General Assembly have identified eminent domain reform as a priority during the 2006 session, which began last week.

Thomson characterized some of the task force members as staunch opponents of eminent domain who, after several task force meetings, began to realize some of the tool’s benefits.

The main benefit, he said, is that it eradicates blight, particularly in the urban core, and can help bring businesses and jobs back to struggling areas.

But Thomson said task force members who were more supportive of eminent domain learned that the tool has been used more broadly.

Thomson said most of the eminent domain abuses that the task force heard about occurred in St. Louis and its suburbs.

One example, he said, was St. Louis’ acquisition of a parking garage to build a new garage with a different owner.

“That is not what our founding fathers envisioned when they drew up the Constitution,” Thomson said.

Thomson sees both sides of the issue.

“Missouri borders eight states and all of those state governments compete with us for business,” he said. “I know that eminent domain is necessary for economic development, but I’m also a staunch conservative who respects property rights.”

If the task force’s recommendations become law, the benefits of economic development, such as an increase in the tax base or more jobs, would not be defined as a “public use.”

And the acquisition of farm land through eminent domain for economic development would be prohibited.

“I don’t think of a green field in the middle of the suburbs as blighted,” Thomson said.

Under the task force’s recommendations, entities using eminent domain would have to notify the affected property owners early in the process, inform them of their legal rights and how the acquisition process works.

The entities would also be required to negotiate in good faith, give landowners 30 days to consider an offer, and provide an opportunity for third-party mediation.
The mediation stipulation is important, Thomson said, because it can result in fewer acquisition cases going to court.

Among the other recommendations:
  • Factors beyond fair market value should be considered in determining compensation for landowners.
  • Courts should be able to penalize a condemning authority if it is determined that it acted in bad faith.
  • Eminent domain should be used only by government agencies whose officials are elected or appointed and accountable to the people, not by private developers or urban redevelopment corporations. Missouri and New York are the only two states that allow developers to act as the condemning authority, the task force said.

State Sen. Charlie Shields, the Senate Majority Leader who attended the meeting, said the task force’s report and recommendations should serve as a good “road map” for lawmakers.

“We will try to find a reasonable solution,” Shields said. “But it will be fraught with political peril.”

Kansas City Star: www.kansascity.com