Eminent domain bill may slow I-73: Myrtle Beach (SC) Sun News, 3/19/06

Clause may have unintended effect

By Zane Wilson

Interstate 73 right-of-way acquisition could be set back two years by an unintended result of a change in condemnation law in the House version of an eminent domain bill.

State Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, unsuccessfully tried to change the wording as requested by the state Department of Transportation.

It's up to the Senate now to fix it, Clemmons said. He said Thursday he had talked to some senators who said they will do their best.

The problem, according to DOT staff attorney Deborah Durden, is a change in condemnation procedure in the eminent domain bill.

"We're just kind of getting caught in the crossfire," she said.

Under existing law, when there is a dispute over the price of property that is being condemned, an agency can go ahead with the project while the courts are considering the owner's compensation.

The House bill changes that to forbid projects from going forward until the case is settled. Those cases can take up to two years in Horry County, said Clemmons, who is a lawyer. If there is an appeal to a higher court, it could take several more years.

Meanwhile, a major project such as I-73 could be stalled while construction prices continue to rise, he said.

Durden said the DOT estimates the price increases on I-73 alone would be $134 million. In addition, the procedural change would affect other planned projects such as completion of the Carolina Bays Parkway and widening of S.C. 707.

Clemmons, who is president of the S.C. I-73 Association, said he is worried over the delay in construction that could be caused.

A final proposed route for the first interstate to connect to Horry County is expected to be presented in May, and right-of-way acquisition could begin soon after.

Clemmons said the procedural change will affect any project across the state that involves condemnation, not just roads.

He said the authors of the bill did not foresee the impact of the change, which was intended to make sure property owners get compensated before a project goes forward.

Clemmons said existing law ensures they are compensated but does not hold up projects.

He was unable to persuade the House on Wednesday during the debate on the bill. His motion was tabled 53-18.

He was able to get a change in the bill on a minor measure that could help I-73 or other large future projects. A provision in the bill allowed the original owners of condemned property to have the first chance to get it back if the land was not used after 10 years. Clemmons got in a change that exempts road corridors from that provision because it can take more than 10 years to build a major road.

The Senate already has passed an eminent domain bill that does not include the most controversial part of the House bill. The House measure includes compensation for property values lost because of zoning or other land use controls.

Senators have said they are not interested in dealing with that issue in a bill that was intended to solidify state policy that condemnation can be for public use only, not simply for public benefit.

The eminent domain bills are a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that said local governments can take property and turn it over to private developers if the result is in the public benefit.

The two bills will have to be worked out, most likely by a conference committee.

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