Neville proposes bill that would limit eminent domain: (Farmington NM) Daily Times, 1/20/06

By Rhys Saunders and Walter Rubel

Republican senators Steve Neville, Farmington, and Lee Rawson, Las Cruces, have introduced legislation that would prohibit cities and other local government agencies from using their powers of eminent domain to condemn private property for commercial development.

Neville's bill would add a new section to the state's Eminent Domain Code prohibiting the practice. Rawson's bill goes one step further, seeking a constitutional amendment in which voters would be asked to limit the powers of eminent domain in the state Constitution.

Eminent domain gives governments the authority to seize private property, paying the owners fair market value. It has typically been used for public needs such as roads and utilities. But a Supreme Court decision handed down last year allows municipalities to use eminent domain to clear the way for private development.

"The Supreme Court case caused an uproar all over the country," Neville said.

He noted that the city of Farmington is in the process of reviving its downtown area, and has agreed not to use eminent domain laws in that process, but there is nothing now in New Mexico law that would stop them.

"The Constitution says if it's allowed in statute you can do it," Neville said.

Three different state codes would appear to allow for property to be seized, he noted. Neville said his bill would not prevent the traditional uses of eminent domain to meet community needs.

Rawson said even if Neville's bill is passed, he will still seek a change in the Constitution. Putting it into the Constitution will remove politics from the issue and ensure that private property rights are maintained in future years when other lawmakers are in office, he said.

"We both have the same goal," Rawson said.

Local officials in San Juan County applauded the proposed legislation.

"I support that bill," said Farmington Mayor Bill Standley.

Standley said the Farmington City Council is in the process of drafting a resolution that would limit the city's use of eminent domain, restricting the ability to seize both private and commercial property for the purposes of metropolitan redevelopment.

"It's sensible for us to back it up," Standley said of state legislation. "The sooner we do it (pass a local resolution), the better it is to show support of the bill."

Standley said he expects the draft to be brought before the council within "the next couple of weeks," and believes the City Council will vote in favor of the resolution.

Councilor Mary Fischer said she believes a resolution would not have been necessary if the council had not passed boundaries for the metropolitan redevelopment area (MRA).

"It (eminent domain) is what drives the MRA train," Fischer said. "Without condemnation, the whole concept does not work. I think (Standley) may be understanding that support of the MRA is an error and I think he's trying to backstep a little bit."

Fischer said she is not in favor of eminent domain for economic purposes and even termed the idea a "scam" used to "help your buddy at the expense of your neighbor."

She said she believes San Juan County citizens would vote in favor of a bill limiting the powers of eminent domain.

There are certain instances in which eminent domain would still apply under the city's proposed resolution, Standley said.

"Some residents could be deemed not fit (to live at a location) if it's being used as a crack house or for illegal and illicit activities," Standley said. "In that case, the property would be used for city purposes, not for economic purposes. If it's a viable property, I'm not going to exercise eminent domain."

Standley noted that the City Council will be "very diligent" if it ever decides to exercise the practice.

During a Nov. 14 Bloomfield City Council meeting, the council approved a resolution stating that the city opposes eminent domain actions "that would result in the taking of an occupied residence for economic development or redevelopment purposes."

"We couldn't set the law for ourselves or for future councils, but we wanted to say that this is the way the current council feels about (eminent domain)," said Bloomfield Mayor Keith Johnson, who is also a County Commissioner.

Johnson said that if the state legislation is brought before the public, he believes local residents will vote in favor of the bill.

"I think it would have overwhelming support to limit where eminent domain could be used," Johnson said. "For the purposes of roads and utilities, I think it's a necessary tool, but we've never had to use it in Bloomfield."

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