A year after plans to build the "Super Slab" private toll road on the Eastern Plains were put on hold, eminent domain the government's right to seize private property for other uses has returned to center stage at the state Capitol.
Lawmakers are reviewing bills aimed at regulating private highways and will be asked to vote on whether to ban governments from condemning land for economic development projects.
"The citizens want to know where our legislators sit on this issue. If they don't represent the people on this, they'll be fired in November," said Marsha Looper, a Super Slab opponent who's now running for a seat in the House.
Looper is seeking the seat now held by term-limited Richard Decker, R-Fountain. Retired lobbyist John Shipper is also challenging Republican Debbie Stafford, R-Aurora, largely because of the toll road issue.
On Thursday, Super Slab critics scored a victory when the Senate Transportation Committee gave initial backing to a measure that would only allow private companies to condemn private property if they partnered with the state to build the road. Backers of the Front Range Toll Road oppose Sen. Tom Wiens' bill because they say they would have to give up ownership of the road to the state and no investors would be interested.
Another proposal would require private roads to be subject to the same regulations as public roads, including doing environmental impact studies.
Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a similar bill from Wiens last year and has warned lawmakers that the state may need private toll roads in the future.
However, eminent domain critics are also thinking beyond Super Slab following last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo case that found that New London, Conn. had the right to take homes for a private development project. The court also said that states could set limits on the practice.
Looper is part of a coalition collecting signatures on a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban eminent domain for economic development. They need to gather 68,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot and so far have about 9,000.
To make sure it gets on the ballot, state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, also plans to introduce a resolution with the same language at the Capitol. However, it would have to get two-thirds support in the House and Senate because it changes the constitution.
"Owning property in this country is a fundamental right people have come to expect. I think it (eminent domain) has been abused by local, county and state governments for the purpose of putting tax dollars in the till," said White, pointing to Lakewood's decision to declare a portion of West Colfax Avenue as blighted.
White said the proposal would bar private toll roads from being built. Looper said they could still be allowed as long as the project was just a road and didn't include development of things like shops and hotels along the corridor.
White said he's proposing a constitutional amendment to make sure that home-rule cities like Denver would have to abide by the change.
The Colorado Municipal League opposes the measure and says that the state's 40 urban renewal authorities which include cities as varied as Denver and Delta have used it sparingly for economic redevelopment. Only six of them have used it for such projects over the last five years and none were to pave the way for a "big box" retail store, said CML executive director Sam Mamet.
"Don't take a rifle and fire shots all over the place to solve a problem that does not exist. This is an emotional response to a problem that just does not exist in Colorado," Mamet said.
He said a law passed by Colorado lawmakers a year before the Kelo decision gives added protections to property owners in party by making city councils meet certain requirements before being able to condemn property for economic development.
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