Crawford County legislators unveil eminent domain legislation: Arkansas News (Little Rock AK), 4/21/06

By Aaron Sadler

Two Crawford County lawmakers released a draft proposal Thursday that they said would safeguard property owners from eminent domain takings for private purposes.

Sen. Ruth Whitaker, R-Cedarville, and Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, said they would sponsor legislation in the 2007 regular session to prohibit use of government eminent domain powers for private development.

The duo said a law is necessary because of a ruling last year in which the U.S. Supreme Court said the city of New London, Conn., could condemn private property for another private enterprise.

The lawmakers' proposed "Arkansas Property Owners' Rights Protection Act" would prohibit condemnation for private use or for a development that would enhance tax revenue.

Also, the proposal would amend the definition of a "blighted area" in the state's Tax Increment Financing legislation to exempt all farmland.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson praised the proposal, which he said he hoped was spurred by his call last summer for legislative action on the issue.

Hutchinson's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Beebe, has said a provision in the state constitution is strong enough to protect property owners. The constitution allows for eminent domain takings for public purposes only with just compensation.

"Our state constitution already protects private property owners, but (Beebe) has said in the past and he continues to be open to legislation to restate and clarify that," Beebe campaign spokesman Zac Wright said.

Whitaker said the draft legislation was not intended as fodder for political candidates.

"We have assured everyone that has asked, the media in particular, it is not for any candidate," Whitaker said after unveiling the proposal at a state Capitol news conference. "This is for the citizens of the state by the legislators of the state. Period. End of sentence."

Their intent was to ensure Arkansans and the media that legislators were working on a response to the Supreme Court ruling, Whitaker said.

"I applaud their efforts in addressing what I see as a problem across our nation and something that should be addressed in Arkansas," Hutchinson said. "I spoke early on that we need to take action in Arkansas and that we need to provide protection from eminent domain abuse."

Whitaker and Green were joined by Reps. Shirley Walters, R-Greenwood, Daryl Pace, R-Siloam Springs, Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs Village and Bob Mathis, D-Hot Springs; and Sen. Steve Higginbothom, D-Marianna.

Mathis is term-limited and Higginbothom is not running for re-election this year.

Green and Whitaker said they have discussed eminent domain legislation for about two years and the need for a state statute became urgent after the Supreme Court ruling.

The draft legislation could not have been completed in time for a special legislative session earlier this month, Green said, although he considered asking Gov. Huckabee to include it in his special session call.

Whitaker said the bill would have been inappropriate to consider during a special session on education.

"We didn't have the bill in its final draft form, and something of this magnitude and importance, we just didn't feel the need to rush," Green said.

They said several instances illustrate the need for legislative action, contending that some municipalities or state agencies have or have threatened to abuse existing eminent domain law.

Green said a Little Rock woman was warned last year that her property may be taken for the purpose of constructing a nonprofit organization's headquarters. Another "blighted" tract of land taken in Fort Smith has set empty for years, he said.

Both said they were disturbed by a Polk County jury verdict awarding no money to a Russellville landowner whose property was taken by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department for an Interstate 40 off-ramp.

Highway Department spokesman Randy Ort said state law currently allows the department to offer no money for eminent domain takings if the value of remaining land will be significantly enhanced by the condemnation.

"That property before did not have access to the interstate," Ort said. "It's now considered a prime spot. The law allows a property owner to be compensated in benefits to the remainder of the property. This is not something we apply very often."

Ort said the land in question, about 61 acres, was appraised by the Highway Department at $1.22 million before the highway improvements. An after-improvements appraisal set the value of the landowner's remaining 53 acres at $2.8 million

Green and Whitaker's bill would ensure that landowners are compensated the value of the property taken, notwithstanding the affect of the taking on the value of adjacent property.

Arkansas News: http://www.arkansasnews.com