Proposal to restrict eminent domain powers moves forward: Macon (GA) Telegraph, 1/19/06

Greg Bluestein, Associated Press

A moratorium on [Georgia] government's power to seize private land cleared another hurdle on Thursday, passing a key Senate committee by unanimous vote.

The proposal would block local governments for 120 days from using eminent domain powers to seize land for any purpose aside from building public roads and government buildings. A similar proposal breezed through a House committee last week.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the moratorium would give lawmakers a chance to impose other restrictions on eminent domain powers.

One idea that emerged this week from House leaders: Set up an independent committee with power to rule when a local government tries to use eminent domain powers to take land.

Keith Hatcher, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Realtors, said condemning property for libraries, schools and City Halls - not urban redevelopment - is proper a use of eminent domain. He and other supporters say local governments already have enough tools at their disposal to fight blight.

When governments use condemnation to revive blighted areas, Hatcher said, "The end doesn't justify the means. It doesn't override the fact that some citizen had their rights to own private property taken."

John Hiscox, director of Macon's Housing Authority, said lawmakers should not punish the agencies acting responsibly. He said his group's guidelines limit eminent domain powers as a "last resort."

In the last five years, he said his agency has condemned 127 homes, most of them "friendly" moves. The powers have helped the city rehabilitate dozens of homes and revitalize blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods, Hiscox said.

"It doesn't sound like we're in a stampede to seize private property by the ton," Hiscox said.

State lawmakers homed in on eminent domain in June when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted New London, Conn., officials to condemn a group of older homes along the city's waterfront for a private developer.

Since that decision, a Stockbridge floral shop has become a statewide focal point for the fight. City officials condemned the shop and plan to replace it with a retail complex anchored by a new City Hall.

The session opened with about a dozen bills seeking to limit eminent domain. One of the strongest, proposed by Chapman, calls for a constitutional amendment restricting the government's ability to take land for economic redevelopment.
State Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, cautioned lawmakers against having a knee-jerk reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling.

"We seem very quick to pass laws and excitedly put things on the ballot," said Adelman. "The ballots are getting pretty crowded these days."

Yet state Rep. Steve Davis, a McDonough Republican, urged strong, immediate action.
"We need to put a stop to this," said Davis. "If we're going to make mistakes, then we need to err on the side of the property owners."

Macon Telegraph: www.macon.com