House panel seeks checks on eminent domain: Bradenton (FL) Herald, 3/14/06

By Stephen Majors

A [Florida] House select committee Monday decided upon its final recommendations for tightening the state's laws on the eminent domain powers of local governments.

The House Select Committee to Protect Private Property Rights approved a general bill and a proposed constitutional amendment for consideration by the full Legislature in the coming weeks of the session. Both measures would remove slum and blight as justifications for the government taking private property and would replace that standard with a more stringent "threat to public health and safety."

During the past six months, the 15-member committee has debated how to shore up Florida's eminent domain laws in reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of a city in Connecticut to take private property for the purpose of economic development.

Members of the committee generally agreed that economic development should not be a valid justification but have debated how restrictive laws should be.

A significant portion of the committee at one time held that local governments did not need the power of eminent domain to condemn property. Local police powers would be sufficient, they said.

But the measures now on their way to consideration by the full Legislature give eminent domain powers in restricted circumstances. The committee approved the general bill with a 15-0 vote and recommended the proposed constitutional amendment with a 12-3 vote.

According to committee member Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the general bill would put specific laws regulating eminent domain on the books, while the constitutional amendment would enshrine general principles in the Constitution "so that future Legislatures can't go back and change it."

The general bill would treat property on a parcel-by-parcel basis. Any owner of property sought by local government would have the ability to challenge local government in court, without the court first giving the presumption of correctness to the government. Local government would have to prove with clear and convincing evidence - instead of by the preponderance of evidence in current law - that a property demonstrated a threat to public health and safety.

Lawmakers on the committee agreed Thursday that the Legislature should provide guidelines to the courts regarding what constitutes a threat to public health or safety, such as a fire hazard or vermin infestation.

Members of the committee debated Monday and eventually approved an amendment that would prevent local governments from transferring condemned property to private individuals for five years after the property is taken unless it was for a public purpose.

Galvano and three other legislators said the bill already made the standards local governments must meet strict enough and that going any further wouldn't serve the best interests of public policy.

"If we as a Legislature stay involved we have moved away from protecting the individual freedom of property rights and into the realm of dictating property views," Galvano said. "At that point we run awry of local control."

Rep. Greg Evers, R-Milton, the amendment's sponsor, and eight other lawmakers, wanted to go further.

"It could not be transferred back to a private individual, which is the reason we all sat on this committee to start with," Evers said. "It would allow for the taking but it would make them use it for traditional purposes such as a road or school."

House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, will next refer the legislation to standing committees, which could make changes before the two measures reach the chamber floors for a vote.

Bradenton Herald: http://www.bradenton.com