House bill would set restrictions on using the process for development: Springfield (MO) News-Leader, 3/4/06

By Chris Blank, Associated Press

A [Missouri] House proposal would expand how much money people could receive when their property is taken through eminent domain while also imposing more restrictions on using the tool for economic development.

The bill adopts almost all of the 18 recommendations made last December by a gubernatorial task force charged with studying eminent domain.

Concerns about eminent domain grew after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that upheld the ability of local governments to condemn private property so it can be transferred to other private entities that could generate more taxes.

One of the most contentious questions facing lawmakers is whether private property should be able to be taken for private economic development. The bill filed Thursday with the support of almost half the House members splits the difference — allowing private property to be taken for economic development, but only if cities can demonstrate other purposes for taking it as well.

Jim Roos, the coordinator for the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition, said that doesn't go far enough, and that the bill focuses on changing side issues rather than directly addressing eminent domain.

"We weren't saying you have to change the process by which you take our property, our homes and our businesses, but rather, that you should stop doing it completely," he said.

Leslie Holloway, the Missouri Farm Bureau's director of government affairs, said the group believes the bill contains sufficient limitations on using eminent domain to promote economic development, because it also puts more restrictions on "blight."

Local governments can declare areas to be "blighted" in order to seize them through eminent domain, but "blight" has a loose definition, and some cities have drawn criticism for using the designation inappropriately.

To address "blight," the House proposal would both tighten its definition and make it harder to seize property by declaring it "blighted" than to use private property for "public uses," such as roads and electrical lines. It would also prohibit farmland and land that has never been developed from being declared blighted.

Business groups have said it's important to strike a balance between preventing abuses and ensuring that building and utility projects don't become more expensive.

Jeff Craver, tax counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the key issue lawmakers need to address is finding a way to stop repeats of the eminent domain abuses that have already been documented.

"This bill stops cities from using a thirst for tax dollars under the guise of economic development as the justification for taking someone else's property," he said.

But he said the parts of the bill that get into public uses and compensation for those whose land is taken from eminent domain don't contribute to the core issue and could make it more expensive to build and deliver utilities in Missouri.

When determining compensation for the use of eminent domain, the proposal would require the consideration of factors such as how long someone has owned the land and the expected earnings from the new development.

Holloway said there are intrinsic values that can't be measured simply by paying what the land is worth.

"A just compensation is required under the Missouri Constitution, and it's important to clarify under state statute that this includes more than just the appraised value of the land," she said.

Leaders in both the House and Senate have listed further restrictions on the use of eminent domain as one of their priorities, and groups on both sides of the issue say several changes are likely before a final bill is passed.

The News-Leader: www.news-leader.com