Limits for Pa.'s eminent domain: Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 4/26/06

The Senate approved stricter guidelines for taking property

By Diane Mastrull and Amy Worden

In an effort to better shield home and business owners from government land grabs, the Pennsylvania Senate gave final legislative approval yesterday to new restrictions on the use of eminent domain for private economic development.

As part of a compromise to get the bill through, the measure would not apply to some property already under the threat of condemnation. These exemptions are intended to protect revitalization work in Philadelphia, Norristown and Chester.

Still, some of the harshest critics of Pennsylvania's eminent domain laws praised the unanimously passed Senate bill because it would replace subjective criteria for condemnation with more quantitative measures.

A spokesman said Gov. Rendell wanted to see how well the legislation - which includes a separate bill dealing with reimbursements to owners of seized property - "balances the rights of property owners with the development needs of communities" before deciding whether to sign them.

Elizabeth G. Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, in Glenside, said the bill represented "a lot of effort put into building consensus" as competing measures bounced back and forth in the General Assembly.

Pennsylvania becomes the 18th state to have passed legislation to curtail - if not prohibit - the use of eminent domain since June, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That was when the U.S. Supreme Court, with its ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, triggered nationwide concern that any property was vulnerable to condemnation. The justices found that the Connecticut city could force the sale of houses and businesses in a neighborhood to make way for private economic development even without the "blight" designation that usually is required.

By the end of the year, legislative efforts had been launched in Congress and more than 30 states to try to prevent the kind of property seizures the high court had endorsed. Among those are pending bills to limit eminent domain in New Jersey.

In Pennsylvania, the focal point of months of debate has been how to define blight and how much of it needs to exist before an area can be designated a redevelopment zone and subject to eminent domain. The blight definitions have been often criticized as too vague and subjective. One of the region's most publicized debates over this issue flared in Ardmore over a failed attempt to use "blight" to justify a controversial revitalization project there.

Under the new bill, specific conditions such as a threat to health and safety, abandonment and tax delinquency would constitute blight.

"Before this bill, Pennsylvania law allowed condemnation of virtually any area by labeling it blighted," said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), who wrote the bill. "Now we've tightened the definition of blight so that it applies to areas with real, objective concrete harms to the public. It can no longer be used to take ordinary neighborhoods for private development or to take neighborhoods just because the people who live there have less money."

Though she remains concerned that those who have the most difficulty finding housing - people of low income - are often "victimized" by eminent domain and the uprooting it forces, Hersh said the legislature's efforts this week to "tighten up" the definition of blight are "a step forward."

Meanwhile, Joel Johnson, assistant executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of Montgomery County, was relieved yesterday that Pennsylvania lawmakers had responded to the lobbying efforts of his agency and others to grant exemptions for older communities, such as Norristown, where revitalization is sputtering to life and eminent domain has been used to acquire property for a downtown parking garage.

Under the new legislation, the blight designation in effect in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Norristown and other places might not meet the new legislative definition, but it would be permitted through 2012.

At 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia coalition of anti-sprawl advocates who consider eminent domain a valuable redevelopment tool, president Janet Milkman was not ecstatic but was far more content than she's been.

"It was a valiant effort to take a very powerful tool of government and make it more fair," Milkman said.

In December, she denounced an earlier version of the Senate bill as "detrimental to the state as a whole and particularly to our older communities."

Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com