Official defends eminent domain: Centre Daily Times (Centre County PA), 2/13/06

By Mike Billips

[Georgia] Gov. Sonny Perdue tried to head off criticism last week that his proposal to rein in eminent domain powers might be too weak.

Perdue's bills would strip eminent domain power from development and housing authorities, but still would allow local elected governments to seize land from unwilling sellers in the name of cleaning up urban blight. Some lawmakers, however, say eminent domain power should only be used to acquire land needed for public uses, like roads and schools.

"There are those who would demagogue this issue," Perdue said. "But I think we have built a threshold that is a high one."

Perhaps too high, said the man responsible for rebuilding some of Macon's most rundown streets. Eminent domain is a useful tool in cleaning up abandoned and derelict properties, said John Hiscox, executive director of the Macon Housing Authority.

While Perdue's proposal wouldn't prevent future neighborhood rebuilding projects, Hiscox said, it would complicate them and slow the process. And tougher measures pushed by some legislators might make it much more difficult to replace crack houses and vacant lots with new homes, he said.

"The question is, are you going to give a single property owner veto power over the redevelopment of an entire neighborhood?" Hiscox said.

Perdue's bills would have little impact on Middle Georgia development bodies, said attorney Kevin Brown, who represents several Macon-area authorities.

"I don't know of any (development authorities) in Middle Georgia that have used eminent domain condemnation," Brown said.

Few housing authorities use the power, either, Hiscox said, but those in Macon and Athens have used it extensively.

In order to rebuild blighted neighborhoods, Hiscox said, the local housing authority decided about a dozen years ago that it needed to clean up all the properties in an area being rebuilt.

In some cases, property owners want a price for their property that is far above its appraised value, and the housing authority uses eminent domain to force a sale. But in many cases, it is very difficult to find or negotiate with the owners.

Ordinary code enforcement procedures are useless when the actual property owner lives out of state or is unidentified, Hiscox said.

"For one property, the last known owner lived in St. Louis, and refused to return phone calls or pay any attention to court summonses," he said. "In some cases, the person whose name is on the deed has been dead for years, and the real owner won't admit to it because they're worried about back taxes or city citations."

Often, eminent domain proceedings amount to "friendly condemnations," Hiscox said. The property owners benefit by getting a fair market price for property they couldn't otherwise sell for lack of a clear title.

Without exercising condemnation and forced purchase, all the city can do is demolish a derelict building and place a lien on the property, Hiscox said.

"At great cost, you've exchanged a derelict building for a vacant lot," he said. "Vacant lots blight neighborhoods, too."

The housing authority still would be able to do neighborhood redevelopment if the City Council had to authorize each condemnation with a vote, Hiscox said.

But eliminating blight cleanup as a purpose of eminent domain would have severe impact, he said.

"Any time you have a great burning issue, you're going to have to simplify it and have voters vote on it, and then live with it," he said. "We just need to be cautious about it."

Eminent domain is a hot topic at statehouses across the United States this year, because of a Supreme Court decision last June in a Connecticut case. A divided court said that the city of New London, Conn., could force people to sell their property in order to make way for new development, with the public purpose being the increased tax revenues the local government would bring in.

Similar "abuses" of eminent domain have occurred in the Southeast, including a case in Jacksonville, Fla., where a neighborhood was demolished after government condemnation, to make way for the "economic development" of a Super Wal-Mart.

In Stockbridge, just south of Atlanta, a florist is fighting city plans to demolish her store to make way for a new city hall and retail complex.

"The whole country is going through this tsunami of public opinion, because there have been abuses," Hiscox said. "Insensitive and stupid bureaucrats have abused their power."

Some eminent domain critics say that the traditional use of eminent domain, a forced purchase of land from a private owner for public purposes, has been stretched beyond recognition.

"Eminent domain was intended for government use," said Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick. Chapman has authored several bills to limit eminent domain, and believes Perdue's proposed legislation doesn't go far enough.

House Bill 1313, introduced Thursday by the governor's floor leader, would still allow city and county governments to condemn property to eliminate "blighted" properties, such as those with large tax delinquencies or derelict buildings.

"I believe that will always be an unhealthy exercise," Chapman said.

A companion constitutional amendment, House Resolution 1306, would change the state Constitution to limit eminent domain power to elected governments, and require a vote for any condemnation.

Chapman is pushing his own bill, Senate Bill 86, which passed the Senate last year, as well as a four-month moratorium on eminent domain. Some merging of the measures might happen, said Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson.

Regardless, "we will pass legislation that will protect private property owners' rights," he said.

Centre Daily Times: www.centredaily.com