Use of eminent domain stirs debate: (Lincolnshire IL) Pioneer Press, 12/29/05

By John Roszkowski

Carol Johnson doesn't like the idea of the government taking people's property and then turning it over to a private developer for just another retail center.

Johnson is one of many Lake Zurich residents who has protested recent efforts by her village to condemn five properties in the downtown to pave the way for a new retail and condominium development.

While her property is not directly affected, she worries that her home, which is located only a couple blocks from the proposed development, could be targeted for condemnation in the future.

Supreme court ruling
The use of condemnation by villages to redevelop downtown areas has produced a debate between property rights advocates and village officials. The debate intensified recently with the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision which expanded government powers to condemn property for private development projects.

In the past, governmental units have primarily used eminent domain to provide vital services to the public, such as new roads, hospitals or utilities.

State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-29th, of Lake Forest, has proposed a bill to better clarify when eminent domain can be used for private development and provide more protection to individuals whose property is taken.

"The legislation tries to find a balance between economic development and property rights," she said.

Garrett's bill would limit the taking of property for private development to property that is "blighted" or to areas defined as blighted under the Tax Increment Allocation Redevelopment Act. It also would require the condemning authority to pay reasonable relocation costs to affected property owners, if necessary, and to reimburse reasonable attorney's fees to property owners who contest condemnation if a court determines the taking of property was not warranted.

Garrett said she plans to introduce the bill during the spring legislative session and hopes to get feedback from citizens, businesses, developers and local governments by Jan. 6.

Chris Wilson, executive director of the Lake County Municipal League, which represents 42 cities and villages in the county, said Illinois already has very strong laws in place to protect the rights of property owners when eminent domain is used for redevelopment purposes. She worries the additional expenses could kill important projects.

"It just encourages people to litigate and stall. It doesn't give them any incentive to sit down with local governments and negotiate in good faith," she said.

Earlier this year, Lake Zurich filed eminent domain lawsuits against five parcels in its downtown along Main Street and Lake Street. Four of the properties were residential rental homes and one was a business, the Rock N' Roll Grill.

Lake Zurich Village Administrator John Dixon said all of the properties the village sought were within the village's downtown Tax Increment Financing District. Dixon said a village five-year study found property values in that area were experiencing little growth, and in some years declining.

"We had spent considerably money on infrastructure enhancements in that area, but property values weren't keeping up," said Dixon.

He said Lake Zurich has already reached an agreement with three of the property owners on a purchase price.

But many homeowners like Johnson are concerned about the precedent being set by the village's action.

"If a village can capriciously take a person's property and sell it to a developer, everybody's got to be worried," she said.

Eric Waggoner, a principal planner for Lake County, said the county is monitoring eminent domain legislation at the state level but has yet to take an official position.

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