Blunt gets eminent domain bill: St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 5/5/06

By Virginia Young

Wrapping up one of the biggest issues on its agenda, the [Missouri] Legislature on Friday passed and sent to the governor a bill [HB1944] revamping eminent domain law.

Gov. Matt Blunt praised the bill and is expected to sign it.

Supporters called the bill a delicate compromise that lets cities clear blight and ensures fairer treatment for landowners. The House passed it 144-3. In the Senate, the final vote was 32-1.

Some urban legislators and property rights advocates termed the bill a huge disappointment.

"I don't think it's going to stop much abuse," said Steven Anderson, who helped develop a model law for the Institute for Justice in Washington. He said the only people who gain protection under Missouri's bill are farmers.

The measure stops short of tightening the definition of "blight." It would continue to let cities use the current definition, which relies on vague factors such as inadequate street layout, unsafe conditions and obsolete platting.

Only farmland would be excluded from being declared blighted. It could still be taken for public use, such as to run a utility line.

Leslie Holloway, a lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau, was pleased with the bill.

"We feel that the rural areas came out very well," she said. She added that all Missourians will benefit from many of the safeguards, such as a requirement that land be acquired within five years of being declared blighted.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that cities could take land that was not blighted for private development. In theory, Missouri's bill repudiates that idea, saying land could not be condemned "solely" for economic development.

But Anderson said that clause is meaningless because government "will always be able to say there's some other reason," such as blight.

The heart of Missouri's bill: Cities would have to pay homeowners 25 percent more than their property would command on the open market.

If people had owned their homes for 50 years, they would get 50 percent more. That bonus for "heritage value" also would apply to businesses with fewer than 100 employees.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, says the increased payments are only fair.

"You're taking somebody's home against their will," he said. "It ought to cost more."

Ousted property owners also would get moving expenses - at least $1,000 for homeowners and $3,000 for businesses.

Money isn't everything, said those who wanted more protections. Rep. Yaphett El-Amin, D-St. Louis, cast one of the three votes against the measure in the House. She told Hobbs the bill made her wish she were a farm girl.

"You solved your major problem, but you left me out in the cold," she said.

St Louis Post-Dispatch: http://www.stltoday.com