Eminent domain not cut and dried: Shreveport (LA) Times, 4/11/06

Protect from abuse but don't overreach

Efforts to protect private property from government seizure while worrying about its impact on community economic development is tying the Louisiana Legislature in knots.

After the U.S. Supreme Court legitimized a Connecticut economic development agency's power to take property then turn it over to a private, for-profit venture, it certainly is prudent for each state to review its laws and ensure safeguards against abuse.

The danger is, as the chancellor of LSU's Paul Hebert Law Center said in March hearing reported by The Advocate, that a "blunderbuss" approach unintentionally could harm communities. John J. Costonis argued against blanket bans on land expropriated for private development.

Much of the current debate surrounding Senate Bill 1 by state Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, has to do with port facilities needing room to grow and create more terminal space that, in turn, creates jobs. Of course, a huge looming arena of concern is recovery in hurricane-devastated areas as local governments there seek to rebuild, sometimes envisioning tracts differently than their pre-storm uses.

But seeking compromise threatens legislative convolutions. A number of local government associations and public entities are opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment or at least fretting about the potential roadblocks it could raise to economic development. Among the fears is that trying to list or bar private or public-private exceptions in existing eminent domain laws — laws normally used for public uses such as roads or schools — could, in fact, open up loopholes.

In public-private ventures, is there an acceptable percentage of private use? If some of the property is open to the public as a museum or boat launch, what about the private areas leased to gift shops or marinas?

It perhaps may be possible to list some worst-case ventures into state law. Banning expropriation for a golf course could probably find support. But what about a venture such as Bossier City's Louisiana Boardwalk. The city, in part, used its legal powers to help accumulate a tract of land for the popular retail and entertainment venture although the city built and continues to operate a public parking garage.

Enlightened urban planners urge caution particularly for communities trying to breathe new life into older neighborhoods, for which assembling sufficient property for redevelopment is a key. Rather than rewriting the law, perhaps more tests and hurdles could be added to keep government in check. It should be noted, according to the Louisiana Municipal Association, that only three economic development projects, including the Shreveport Convention Center, have used expropriation power in the past 10 years.

While a consideration of the legal implications of the Supreme Court decision is prudent, the state needn't get caught up in a prairie fire of overreaction along with the rest of the nation's state legislatures. The issue of property rights is such a bedrock American concept that its focus nationwide nevertheless is subject to political exploitation no less than the issue of gay marriage or flag burning.

What's needed is a sober, studied review and careful tinkering. The governor, who has offered limited support for the bill though presumably with modifications, would do well to urge reason and deliberative caution.

The Shreveport Times: http://www.shreveporttimes.com