Bill curbs eminent domain use: Wichita (KS) Eagle, 3/21/06

Senators rewrite a compromise version that would have restricted governments less

By Steve Painter

[Kansas] State senators moved Monday to sharply restrict the ability of cities and counties to take private property — for a price — to be used by other private interests for economic development.

Along the way, they discarded most of a compromise bill negotiated by city officials, chambers of commerce and farm groups seeking to protect property rights.

"Do we truly believe that property ownership is a right?" asked Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, who proposed changes to the negotiated bill.

Under the plan as tentatively adopted, local governments could use eminent domain only for public works projects such roads, bridges, parks and water treatment facilities.

Any future effort to take private property for economic development would require approval from the Legislature.

A final vote on the bill is planned today. It advanced Monday on a voice vote.

The bill, 323, and several other bills and constitutional amendments pending in the Legislature resulted from last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case.

The court's 5-4 ruling upheld a move by the city of New London, Conn., to buy several properties from unwilling sellers. The city's action cleared the way for construction of a large redevelopment project, which was to include a pharmaceutical research facility, a hotel, upscale housing, shops and restaurants.

In Kansas, officials have used eminent domain in at least half a dozen instances, including for the Kansas Speedway and the adjacent Village West development in Wyandotte County.

Most eminent domain cases are handled locally, but lawmakers authorized the speedway project.

"The people of Wyandotte County have not forgotten what eminent domain did to our county, despite the success of the speedway," said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City. "I'm proud that I voted no on that speedway deal."

In addition to the speedway, eminent domain was used to take property for Manhattan's downtown redevelopment, a Target distribution center in Topeka, a Home Depot store in Pittsburg and two smaller projects in Merriam.

Without the power of eminent domain, "none of those economic development projects would have occurred," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, the chief proponent of the compromise bill.

In south-central Kansas, some residents of Cowley County have feared that eminent domain could be used for a proposed lake on Grouse Creek.

Although the idea has failed to reach the stage of a feasibility study, property owners hope to put the issue to rest for good.

"We really need something like this to be passed," rancher Kelly Williamson said in a telephone interview before the Senate debate.

"With what we've been through the last two or three years, it's hard for me to be trusting."

If built, the lake would flood much of his property.

City officials in Wichita have said they want to preserve the ability to clean up blighted areas. However, that language was struck from the bill with Apple's amendment.

Property rights advocates say the blight exemption is a loophole for developers to obtain land from unwilling sellers.

Also struck were requirements for a two-thirds majority vote by governing bodies seeking to obtain property, automatic court review of the taking and requirements to pay from 125 percent to 200 percent of market value.

"This bill does provide an abundance of protection for private property owners," Vratil argued, unsuccessfully.

Wichita Eagle: http://www.kansas.com