Florida lawmakers passed a tough measure Thursday that would limit government's ability to seize private property in the name of economic development and approved a constitutional amendment that would put the matter before voters in November.
In the waning hours of the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill and a constitutional amendment that would effectively prohibit agencies from using eminent domain to transfer private property from one individual to another language that would keep commercial developers at bay.
A three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate would be required to grant exceptions if voters approve the constitutional amendment this fall.
The bill sent to Gov. Jeb Bush would make it illegal for agencies to condemn property on the basis of it being blighted, slum-ridden or a public nuisance.
City and counties use eminent domain to purchase property sometimes against the will of owners to make room for public projects, including roads. Such ''traditional'' uses of eminent domain are preserved under the measures.
But there are also concerns that eminent domain is being misused to boost tax revenue by bringing new development into rundown neighborhoods.
David Mach, for example, has spent more than a year fighting the city of Hollywood to keep his 3,000 square-foot commercial building from being turned into a condominium and retail outlet.
Lobbyists used his case to highlight ''eminent domain abuse'' during hearings about the bill.
''Although it doesn't help us, I'm happy that people in this state will be protected,'' said Mach. ``And if we ever buy property again, it will apply to us.''
But not everyone is pleased with the legislation.
The city of Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County has spent many years and millions of dollars working on a master plan to overhaul a rundown section of the city.
Eminent domain was going to be just one of the tools used to purchase some 200 homes and businesses for the project, said Elizabeth Wade, a city council member.
The Legislature's decision puts all those plans and money at risk, she said.
''It's sad the Legislature could have used Riviera Beach as a model,'' she said. ``They have taken out and reshaped a tool in our toolbox. This affects the entire city.''
An amendment that would have allowed Riviera Beach and other projects already in motion to continue was shot down by the sponsor of the Senate bill, Daniel Webster, a Republican from Winter Garden.
He said Florida's residents were calling for a clean break with the past. ''This amendment would be an exception, and I don't believe that the public wants any exceptions,'' he said.
Florida is one of more than a dozen states that reformed eminent domain laws in the wake of Kelo vs. New London, Conn., a Supreme Court case last year that upheld a town's right to take private property in the name of commercial development.
Miami Herald: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald