Town Council Rejects Eminent Domain Power: Westerly (RI) Sun, 2/18/06

By Emily Dupuis

Rest assured, the town [of Westerly RI] cannot seize and replace your home with a hotel, office park or chain restaurant.

Westerly Town Council members have approved an ordinance this week barring themselves and other town officials from invoking the power of eminent domain to take local private property for economic development purposes.

Officials, however, may still appropriate monies to confiscate property to be owned by the town for a public facility or use. This includes streets, bridges, sidewalks, rights or way, parks, playgrounds, schools, permanent open space, drainage and erosion control facilities and public sewer, water or waste disposal or transfer facilities, according to the ordinance adopted Monday.

The statute, approved during the council's regular meeting this week, also allows the town to seize properties dangerous to public health or safety because of physical deterioration, pollution or contamination.

"I think we're taking a step in the right direction for this ordinance just for Westerly," said Councilor Mary Jane DiMaio, following the council vote.

Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. agreed: "I think it's a good move with this issue having been in the news this past year."

Eminent domain powers took center stage in June after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that New London could take seven homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to build a privately owned hotel and offices because it would create more jobs and generate tax revenue. The court also said states are free to ban the taking of property for such projects.

The Kelo v. New London high court decision spurred more than half of U.S. states to enact legislation restricting eminent domain powers.

In Rhode Island, Sens. Dennis L. Algiere, R-Westerly, and James C. Sheehan, D-Narragansett, introduced legislation late last month restricting eminent domain power to protect residential property owners from governmental seizures for economic development.

The bill has been co-sponsored by senators from Smithfield, East Greenwich and Jamestown, drawn support from Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty and been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for review.

In the House, Rep. Charlene M. Lima, D-Cranston, reintroduced similar legislation barring governments from seizing property to be owned by more than 10 percent private ownership.

And late last month, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation's (EDC) board voted to no longer use eminent domain to take occupied residences for economic development.

More than 10,000 properties were threatened or taken by eminent domain between 1998 and 2002 and thousands continue to be, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm fighting eminent domain abuse.

In 2001 in Rhode Island, the EDC attempted to oust a Smithfield farm and garden shop owner from his family's 8.5-acre property to provide nearby Fidelity Investments room to expand. The property owner reportedly has since settled and sold his property to the EDC for $1.65 million.

The Sun: www.thewesterlysun.com