Eminent domain task force to issue report: Columbus (OH) ThisWeek, 3/30/06

By Michael J Maurer

A legislative task force on eminent domain held the first of an expected eight traveling public meetings Monday at Ashland University's Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, where fans of "economic development" eminent domain were hard to find.

The philosophical imbalance was sufficiently pronounced that task force co-chair Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, invited several speakers to come to Columbus to speak to the entire task force, instead of the small subset that attended Monday's session.

Grendell said he wanted task force members who advocated "collective good" eminent domain to hear the strong private property views of scholars at Ashbrook, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Chicago.

"The advocates for the 'collective good' (believe) in takings for the purpose of creating jobs," Grendell said to Ashbrook fellow Robert Alt. "How do you respond to that?"

Alt described property ownership as being among the most fundamental of rights, which could not be circumvented for such purposes.

"It's very rare that there is only one plot of land suitable for a particular usage," Alt said. "The state is simply choosing sides in the fight (between buyer and seller)."

Monday's meeting contrasted with several previous working meetings of the task force, which has met six times since Feb. 16. Many task force members have defended the right of local governments and the state to take land from private owners, so long as proper comprehensive planning has been done.

The task force was established last year shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court case known as "Kelo" that said local governments could, without violating the U.S. Constitution's protections of private property, force an involuntarily sale by private landowners to other private developers.

Proponents of broad takings powers have said the Kelo decision only affirmed decades-old precedents that allow cities to take large swaths of land to clear blight, while proponents of narrow takings powers said the decision marked new territory, allowing private developers to use local governments to their own advantage.

The task force has been charged with issuing two reports, including a preliminary report April 1 and a more detailed report Aug. 1 recommending specific changes to state law.

Despite the anti-Kelo tone of much of Monday's testimony in Ashland, much of the discussion during the task force's working meetings in Columbus has suggested that the general public does not understand the takings issue and that the press has misreported the controversy.

Kimberly Gibson, spokesperson for the Ohio First Suburbs Consortium and a Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission employee, has asked that the task force take no action in response to the Kelo decision, arguing that Kelo is perfectly consistent with sound public policy.

"There is sufficient constitutional authority justifying cities' use of the eminent domain power for promotion of economic development objectives and other public welfare or economic welfare purposes," Gibson said.

In central Ohio, Ohio First Suburbs members include Bexley, Grandview Heights, Upper Arlington and Worthington.

During a working meeting March 23, several task force members expressed fears that private citizens might put a referendum on the fall ballot. If that happened, they said, a constitutional amendment would probably pass overwhelmingly, depriving the General Assembly of an opportunity to put forth what task force co-chair Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, called a "less preposterous" alternative.

Task force member Gene Krebs, director of Greater Ohio, a land use policy organization that supports farmland preservation and economic development, said public support of restricting eminent domain powers is undeniable.

"Polling indicates that 90 percent of the electorate opposes eminent domain for economic development," Krebs said. "And that's without pushing. If you push, it goes to 98 percent."

Krebs said such limitations could be crippling to efforts to bring large employers to Ohio. He cited an example in Alabama where a similar restriction on eminent domain powers raised doubts about whether the state could condemn land for a railroad spur to an automobile manufacturing plant.

Rather than wait for the outcome of a court fight, the manufacturer simply went to Georgia, Krebs said.

"They said, 'I'm not going to wait. I've got money to lay down'," Krebs said.

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