Public to get say on eminent domain: St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 3/12/06

By Virginia Young

Rep. Steve Hobbs compares drafting an eminent domain bill to "walking on a trapeze wire."

Hobbs, R-Mexico, wants to bar developers from taking private property solely for economic development purposes. But he also wants to preserve the power of government to clear decayed areas.

The public can tell Hobbs this week whether his balancing act works. The House Judiciary Committee will open hearings Tuesday on his long-awaited bill. The meeting, which is expected to draw an overflow crowd, will start at noon in a Capitol basement hearing room.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court said cities could condemn homes and businesses that were not blighted and use the land for private development. The ruling ignited a national furor.

In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt and the Legislature's Republican leaders declared the overhaul of eminent domain a top priority. They tapped Hobbs, a farmer, to handle the legislation because he has a record of working to protect landowners' rights.

His bill would require that private property be declared blighted to be taken for economic development. The definition of "blight" would be tightened. Gone would be wording that says areas qualify as blighted because they have become "economic and social liabilities."

The new definition refers to areas that, because of "dilapidation, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, light or sanitary facilities or any combination of these factors are detrimental to public safety, health and morals."

Stan Wallach, a lawyer in St. Louis County who collaborated with Hobbs on parts of the bill, said the legislation would prevent abuses because it targets "a physically run-down area, as opposed to an economically run-down area."

To underscore that point, the bill provides: "Under no condition shall a piece of property be determined to be blighted by the sole consideration of the tax enhancements" that redevelopment would bring.

Hobbs said the bill would have prevented the use of eminent domain to force out a working-class neighborhood in Sunset Hills and a thriving Saturn dealership in Manchester, two controversial projects in the St. Louis area.

"Sunset Hills would not have happened," Hobbs said. "That was strictly about economic development. We're saying it can't just be about economic development."

Some activists question whether the bill goes far enough.

Jim Roos heads a St. Louis-based group called the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition. Roos said he has been fighting eminent domain since it was used to take 24 buildings that his nonprofit housing ministry managed in St. Louis.

Hobbs' bill contains numerous provisions to make sure people who lose their land are treated fairly, Roos said. But making the process fairer doesn't make it right, he said.

"We think the taking of private property for private development is inherently unfair," he said. His coalition would prefer a total ban.

The Missouri Farm Bureau succeeded in getting many of its ideas incorporated in Hobbs' bill. For example, farmland and vacant land that has never been developed could not be declared blighted. Such land could only be condemned for public uses, such as roads and utilities.

Tuesday's hearing may follow an unusual format, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs. Usually, all the supporters testify first, followed by opponents and those offering neutral comments.

Pratt plans to allow one hour for supporters, one hour for opponents and one hour for neutral parties.

"I want them to hear each other's perspectives," Pratt said. "We can better bring about compromise" if all sides are in the room at the same time, he said. He may reconvene the hearing at noon Wednesday to hear remaining witnesses.

Barb Geisman, executive director for development for St. Louis, plans to testify. She said preserving eminent domain is crucial for urban areas.

"We understand there are abuses of eminent domain out there, like Sunset Hills," she said. "But we're in a significantly different situation. We've got a whole lot of slumlords and speculators out there who have been leaching off our neighborhoods for many, many years."

The bill is HB1944.

St Louis Post-Dispatch: www.stltoday.com