Legislation Introduced To Block Eminent Domain Law: (Berlin MD) Coast Dispatch, 1/26/06

By Shawn J. Soper

In response to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that essentially broadened the powers of local governments to seize private property in the name of economic development, State Senator Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38) this week introduced legislation aimed at tightening Maryland’s application of eminent domain.

Stoltzfus and several of his colleagues this week introduced legislation titled the Property Protection Act of 2006 in the Maryland General Assembly, which, if approved, would eliminate economic development as a valid reason to evoke eminent domain in Maryland. The bill’s introduction comes on the heels of a Supreme Court decision to broaden eminent domain powers to include economic development.

Eminent domain, by definition, is the right of government to seize private property for public use in exchange for payment of fair market value. Traditionally, local governments use eminent domain to take property with compensation to the owners when it is needed for roads, bridges, schools or other infrastructure.

However, the high court’s decision last summer broadens eminent domain powers to a level most property rights enthusiasts are not comfortable with. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold plans by officials in a coastal Connecticut town to condemn nine private homes along the waterfront to pave the way for a large office complex and marina project.

“It caused a huge outcry, and rightfully so,” Stoltzfus said. “Property rights are fundamental to us as Americans and we like to believe our private property and our very homes are safe from seizure by the government.”

Stoltzfus said evoking eminent domain in the name of economic development opens up all sorts of potential property seizures including many in Worcester County.

“This can be applied anywhere,” he said. “This could be applied in places you wouldn’t even consider. Ocean City is ripe for it if we don’t tighten up our own eminent domain statutes.”

The Supreme Court’s decision allowed the nine waterfront properties to be seized for economic development because the justices believed the proposed project was a better use of the land than what was on the ground.

“Perceived blight should not be used as the basis for seizure,” said Stoltzfus. “If it can, than half of the quaint, waterfront shanties that dot our coastline could be seized if a glamorous project was proposed to replace it. It’s too subjective.”

Maryland Coast Dispatch: www.mdcoastdispatch.com