Eminent domain on agenda: Cullman (AL) Times, 1/21/06

By David Mackey

After passing a law designed to curb the use of the "eminent domain" power to seize citizens' property following a controversial decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Alabama legislators are considering several proposals to go even further. Cullman County's state representatives said they have yet to come out in favor of any of the proposals.

Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, has proposed an amendment to the state constitution barring the taking of private property for commercial or industrial development. His amendment would also require that if any property is seized, not used for the stated purpose and then sold, it must first be offered for sale back to the original owner at the price paid to them upon seizure, less taxes.

Sen. Jack Biddle, R-Gardendale, has proposed an amendment nearly identical to Dixon's, but allowing seizures of "blighted" property in urban renewal zones.

An amendment offered by Sen. Steve French, R-Birmingham, bars the state and Alabama municipalities from taking property for "any purpose other than actual use by the public." French's amendment also mandates that property owners are entitled to monetary compensation for any use of eminent domain that restricts their rights to use their property.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2005 barring eminent domain seizures for private purposes after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such takings constitutional in a Connecticut case known as Kelo v. New London.

All amendments to the state constitution must be approved by Alabama voters.

State Rep. Neal Morrison, D-Cullman, said Friday he was "not in favor of anything out there right now."

"I'm looking at all the options, but we've got to be real cautious," Morrison said.

He said he was concerned that a hastily-enacted amendment could inadvertently impede takings for traditional public purposes like building roads or schools. As an example, he spoke of a project to widen Highway 278 to improve safety.

"If it means taking somebody's property, then I'm in favor of taking it ... because it's for the good of the public as a whole," Morrison said.

Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Vinemont, said he favored French's proposed amendment over the others, and hopes to add a clause of his own if a bill reaches the House.

Oden said he wants any amendment to include a provision that if a seized property is sold within seven years of its taking for more money than was paid to the owner, the original owner of the property would then be paid the difference.

He said he believes the proposed amendments do, and should, allow takings for public purposes.

"Utilities and roads, that's the reason (eminent domain) was developed, not for economic development reasons or anything like that," Oden said Saturday.

State Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, did not return messages seeking comment.

Cullman Times: www.cullmantimes.com