Initiative would regulate use of eminent domain: KVOA-TV4 (Tucson AZ), 2/25/06

Property rights supporters, including current and former public officials, have begun a voter initiative to limit government's power to condemn private property and also to require compensation for owners when land-use actions diminish property values.

The group, known as Arizona Home Owners Protection Effort, filed the initiative Thursday with Secretary of State Jan Brewer's office. The group needs to submit signatures from at least 122,612 registered voters by July 6 to get the measure on the November ballot.

Among the group's members are John R. Norton, former undersecretary of agriculture under the Reagan administration, and Carol Springer, former state treasurer and a current Yavapai County supervisor.

Initiative supporters contend the government has abused its powers of eminent domain, a term that until recently has meant the right of a government to appropriate private property for public use.

Representatives of local governments whose condemnation powers have been under siege argue that eminent domain is a valuable tool for economic development and that proposals to curtail their authority have been overreaching.

While governments have traditionally used eminent domain to build public projects such as roads, reservoirs and parks, the U.S. Supreme Court has been expanding the definition of public use for decades, allowing cities to employ eminent domain to eliminate blight.

In a controversial decision last summer, the high court handed down its strongest ruling on the issue, allowing local governments to seize private property and turn it over to private developers for projects that will generate more tax revenues.

"That is a perversion of eminent domain as intended by our founding fathers," Norton said.

The case, Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., sparked voter initiatives and new legislation around the country to stop governments from using eminent domain to condemn private property for private use.

Norton predicted the Arizona initiative will ruffle some feathers.

"Any time you attempt to curb, restrict, or impair the powers of any bureaucracy or elected official, you have bought into a classic confrontation," he said. "They do not accept erosion of their power lightly."

The initiative also addresses another contentious issue known as takings. Under its provisions, landowners would be able to seek compensation from local or state agencies if land-use regulations reduce the value of their properties.

Voters in Oregon in 2004 approved an initiative on compensation for diminished value, but supporters of the Arizona measure said their proposal only would apply to effects of future government actions. An Oregon judge ruled the law violates the state and federal constitutions, but the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the law Tuesday.

The Arizona initiative strongly resembles two eminent domain resolutions pending in the state House of Representatives and the Senate, and initiative supporters said they just want to make sure there's a "Plan B" if legislators scale back the resolutions.

"You can't really count on a referral to the ballot from the Legislature," said group member Lori Klein. "This is a way we can make sure we can get on the ballot."

However, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, sponsor of the House resolution, said he's optimistic that the Legislature will approve its version of the ballot measure.

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