Committee passes eminent domain bill: (Provo UT) Daily Herald, 1/26/06

By Alan Choate

Changes that would make eminent domain proceedings more transparent sailed out of a Utah Senate committee Wednesday morning.

Eminent domain is the power of cities, counties and other governmental units to take private property for public uses.

Utah law already prevents the taking of land for private uses, which has been a national issue following a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing such a taking last year, said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and the sponsor of the bill.

But not all is well with the implementation of the current rules.

A handout from Craig Call, Utah's property rights ombudsman, listed several problems arising out of the current eminent domain law:

Some mayors have claimed the ability to condemn land without City Council action.

Property owners don't have the right to protest the decision to condemn their property or be notified when a public body is going to consider such a decision.

While state law requires the condemning entity to inform property owners of the options they have in the process, some entities interpret that to mean they don't have to offer the information if they merely threaten to condemn land.

"It just seems like an anomaly to me that a decision can be made to take their land without even notifying the property owner," Call said.

Stephenson's bill would remedy those problems by specifying when the notifications must take place and stating that "only the legislative body of a political subdivision can condemn land, not the mayor or city manager acting alone."

Property owners also would have a statutory right to protest the eminent domain action before a condemnation action is taken.

Call described it as a "fine-tuning" of the process, and said the use of eminent domain — usually employed when a government entity and a property owner can't reach a decision on compensation for the property — is improving.

For example, the state Department of Transportation acquired 23 percent of the property it pursued by eminent domain in 2001, a figure that's now less than 4 percent, said Call.

Still, he added, "it's not needed anywhere near as much as it's done."

The legislation now proceeds to the full Senate.

SB 117 — Eminent Domain Amendments — sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, specifies that only the legislative body of a political subdivision can approve a land condemnation and requires property owners to be given notice and a chance to protest before a condemnation decision is made.

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