By Chris Blank, Associated Press
Hundreds of people rallied at the [Missouri] Capitol on Wednesday, demanding lawmakers make it harder to take private property through condemnation for redevelopment by others.
The crowd, which included a mix of people organized by the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition, urged lawmakers to allow the taking of private property only for public uses, such as roads and utility lines.
The use of eminent domain by local governments and some private entities has garnered attention nationally after last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that communities could condemn property and turn it over to private entities for development to increase the tax base.
Gov. Matt Blunt said property should only be taken under eminent domain for a “compelling public reason” such as for roads or public buildings.
“The idea that we can seize a small business, the government can seize a farm, the government can seize a house, that the government can even seize a church or a house of worship is repugnant,” Blunt told the crowd.
Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Mehan said there have been abuses with the use of eminent domain, but called for balancing property rights with development needs.
“It’s extremely important for redevelopment in urban areas,” he said. “The city of St. Louis and the city of Kansas City need that tool to revitalize areas of those cities.”
Charles Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said the protesters came to Jefferson City to “infuse a greater common-sense level in this building and around this state.”
St. Louis resident Maxine Johnson, who led several chants during the rally, said she came because eminent domain threatened her basic constitutional rights.
“Whether they offer you $1 or $1 million, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s your house, and you should have the choice of if you want to sell.”
Johnson, 49, lives with her husband and six children in a house built in 1883. She and some of her neighbors have been resisting a townhouse development since 2003.
She said the state needed to get involved because municipal officials have used eminent domain to take private property and do with it what they wish.
“Why should people buy a house when other people can come in and take it 10, 15 years from now?” Johnson said.
The protest occurred the same day the Senate Economic Development Committee heard testimony on several bills to change the state’s eminent domain and tax increment financing laws.
The four measures varied from what one senator called the “nuclear option” — a constitutional repeal of municipal eminent domain authority for “blighted” property — to a tweaking that its sponsor said would correct at least two-thirds of tax increment financing abuses.
Tax increment financing allows local governments to declare certain areas eligible for development for tax breaks.
The use of both eminent domain and tax increment financing often involves local government declarations that an area is “blighted.” But blight carries a fairly broad definition, including “dilapidation; obsolescence; deterioration; illegal use of individual structures; presence of structures below minimum code standards; abandonment; excessive vacancies; overcrowding of structures and community facilities; lack of ventilation, light or sanitary facilities; inadequate utilities; excessive land coverage; deleterious land use or layout; depreciation of physical maintenance; and lack of community planning.”
The sponsor of what he called the nuclear option, Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the legislature needs to better define blight and change how tax increment financing can be used, or risk a ballot initiative to do it for them.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Franklin, introduced his own bill that he said would help limit the abuses of tax breaks designed to prompt development without getting into blight. Over the objections of Griesheimer, an interim legislative committee he led called for changes to the blight definition.
“I reached the conclusion that I don’t know if we can get there and reach a consensus on blight,” Griesheimer said.
Some lawmakers have said the legislature needs to address both eminent domain and tax increment financing. Blunt has said he believes eminent domain concerns can be addressed separately from those concerning tax increment financing.
A special gubernatorial task force that studied eminent domain use recommended several changes — all of which Blunt has endorsed. The task force suggested that the state develop a higher standard of “blight” in eminent domain cases than exists for tax increment financing, but it did not recommend any specific definition.
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