Eminent domain on city's mind: Iowa City (IA) Press-Citizen, 2/24/06

Officials fear lawmakers may overreact

By Hieu Pham

As a controversial bill to restrict local governments from using eminent domain powers awaits a decision in the Iowa Senate, Iowa City officials fear the proposed bill will cripple the local economy.

City Council member Regenia Bailey said the bill to restrict local governments' power to condemn or take away private property for public use is "disappointing" because it assumes cities will abuse their eminent domain powers.

"In our community, we have used it carefully. ... I am disappointed that the Legislature sees fit to re-examine it," she said.

City manager Steve Atkins said the proposed bill also will be "detrimental in the long term."

Recently, Atkins wrote a letter to Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, and other elected officials to remind them that the bill restricts the city's economic development initiatives, particularly the construction of landfill and sewer treatment facilities.

"We are by law required to provide certain public facilities. Water and sewer facilities require large tracts of land, and if we are precluded from obtaining large tracts of land, how are we going to be able to do that?" Atkins said.

Since the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Kelo v. City of New London in June, eminent domain has become viewed by some as too expansive.

In response, some Iowa legislators proposed a bill that would restrict local government from abusing its eminent domain powers in specified areas. Also, the bill proposes to shift the burden of proof in eminent domain cases from property owners to the government. In addition, an amendment by Rep. Wes Whitehead, R-Sioux City, would assure that people forced to relocate by eminent domain wouldn't have to pay higher property taxes on their new homes for 10 years.

The bill was approved by the Iowa House on Feb. 9 and has been passed to the Iowa Senate where it most likely will undergo many changes, officials say.

Atkins said it's important that local government be able to condemn properties without having to go through extra proceedings that could take years. Currently, condemning properties require public notices, hearings and appraisals, and compensation figures are determined by a jury of citizens appointed by the district court.

Also, the bill would place too much power in the hands of property owners, Atkins said.

"If we (local government) have to pay more, if we don't have condemnation rights, the people (taxpayers) will have to pay more," Atkins said, adding that wastewater and landfill facilities that aren't optimally located will have higher energy and operation costs and can cost the public "many millions of dollars."

The practice of eminent domain to acquire land is so widely used that it is routine, officials say. Cities condemn properties to build schools, courthouses and highways. In Iowa City, about 90 percent of condemnation occurs in the construction of streets and highways, said Atkins.

Lensing could not be reached for comment.

Iowa City Press-Citizen: www.press-citizen.com