Citizens debate eminent domain: Decatur (AL) Daily, 3/2/06

By M J Ellington

People from across Alabama showed up Wednesday to ask legislators at a public hearing to protect them from those who might seek to take their land for a fast-food restaurant or discount store.

So many people packed the House County and Municipal Government Committee's chamber that the crowd spilled into the hallway and committee Chairman Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, moved the hearing on proposed eminent domain legislation to the main House chamber.

"I represent John Doe," said Terry Francisco, who told committee members that after he heard about the hearing Wednesday morning, he checked his children out of school, picked up his wife and drove with his family to Montgomery. Francisco, who did not say where he lives, said it is important for lawmakers to help people like him by protecting his right not to sell his property or have it condemned for big business.

Upstairs in the House visitors' gallery, a crowd of families with children and business people who shared Francisco's view observed the hearing.

Ricky Coldfrancesco said he drove from Birmingham to understand both sides of the issue.

Coldfrancesco, who operates a small lawn care business, said he wanted to see how government really works. Late in the hearing, he had some conclusions and some questions. "There are a lot of opponents to this," Coldfrancesco said. "My question is: Is it a bad bill or is it just emotion talking?"

At issue was HB622, a compromise measure on eminent domain that sponsor Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said attempts to answer concerns raised by similar bills introduced earlier in the session.

The committee will not vote on the measure until a future meeting.

Sponsors of at least five bills introduced this session say their legislation would protect private property against being taken by government for commercial development, but all five have opposition.

The sponsors say their bills would improve the law Alabama passed last summer, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New London, Conn., had the right under that state's law to take private land for commercial development.

Lawmakers and Gov. Bob Riley said at the time that they wanted to tighten the bill's section on taking so-called blighted property and have voters decide whether to make the revised bill an amendment to the state's constitution. Now lawmakers must decide if any of the bills introduced so far are good enough to submit to voters.

Freddie Patterson of the Alabama Farmer's Federation said an attorney for his organization was in the group that helped draft HB622. Patterson said that while ALFA supports the bill, he considers it a work in progress.

"Negotiations are still going on to tighten the section on blight," Patterson wants stronger protection for landowners, but he said there are still things in the bill that need work.

Sonny Brasfield, associate director of the Alabama Association of County Commissions, also was involved in drafting the bill, but he said his organization has concerns. "We appreciate the fact that the sponsor included provisions that allow county governments to do business," Brasfield told committee members. "I urge you to think long and hard about whether Alabama needs to put provisions in this bill in the constitution." Brasfield said there are times when counties need to use eminent domain that the bill makes more difficult.

Greg Cochran with the Alabama Municipal Association said his organization opposes the bill, as does Jim Stanley, an attorney for the city of Birmingham.

Stanley said the bill "would severely cripple" the city's ability to deal with blighted areas.

Decatur Daily: www.decaturdaily.com