Bills attempt to limit possibility of eminent domain being used: Sioux City (IA) Journal, 2/16/06

Farmers and city-dwellers, lobbyists and private citizens all lined up Wednesday in support of tightening Nebraska's eminent domain law to stop the taking of land for private economic development.

But city attorneys and others who work on economic development opposed changing the law, saying eminent domain is rarely used in Nebraska but it is an important and needed tool.

The fundamental right to own property is being subverted through the misuse of eminent domain, supporters of making its use more restrictive told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

"There is no gray area on this issue for me," said Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine, introducer of one of four bills before the committee. "It's black and white."

The bills come in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last year that allowed the city of New London, Conn., to take private property through the use of eminent domain for a private redevelopment project.

While it allowed the New London project to proceed, the high court also noted that states are free to ban the practice.

"I don't want what happened in Connecticut to happen here in Nebraska," Fischer said.

Nebraska lawmakers are not alone in looking at their eminent domain laws following the unpopular court ruling. Four states passed laws reining in eminent domain since the June ruling and roughly 40 others, including Nebraska, are looking at changes.

In Congress, the House voted to deny federal funds to any project that used eminent domain to benefit a private development, and a federal study aims to examine how widely it is used.

The bills before the Nebraska Legislature generally would tighten qualifications that must be met for a property to be considered for eminent domain and prohibit the taking of land for private economic development purposes.

The U.S. Constitution says governments cannot take private property for public use without "just compensation." Governments have traditionally used eminent domain to build public projects such as roads, reservoirs and parks. But for decades, the court has been expanding the definition of public use, allowing cities to employ eminent domain to eliminate blight.

Gothenburg City Attorney Mike Bacon said he has never seen properties condemned in the western Nebraska cities he's worked with on redevelopment projects.

Omaha's City Attorney Paul Kratz, who also opposed the bills, said only property that is determined to be blighted and substandard is targeted under the eminent domain law. He detailed high-profile projects in downtown Omaha that have involved eminent domain.

"This process has been invaluable to the city of Omaha," he said.

Other opponents included the League of Nebraska Municipalities, Lincoln's urban development department, South Platte United Chamber of Commerce and the North Platte Community Development Corporation.

Eminent domain is necessary for the public good in some cases, Fischer said, but that doesn't include taking property from one individual and giving it to another strictly because that person is poised to make more money off the land.

Frankie Pane, who fought the city of Omaha for years over its attempt to use eminent domain to take his property, said his struggle was the most stressful thing he has ever endured. Any reform effort must stop cities from targeting properties as part of a redevelopment project, he said.

Other supporters of tightening eminent domain restrictions included the Nebraska Cattlemen, Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, Women Involved in Farm Economics and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Fischer has prioritized her bill (LB924), meaning that if it can clear the committee it likely will be debated this year. It may contain elements of the other similar measures (LB799, LB910 and LB1252) introduced by Sens. Tom Baker of Trenton, John Synowiecki and Pam Redfield both of Omaha.

Sioux City Journal: www.siouxcityjournal.com