A [Missouri] Senate panel has approved what its chairman calls "the toughest eminent domain bill" [HB 1944] of the session.
The chairman, Sen. Jason Crowell, said because of the significance of the power to take private property and the clear problems in the past, lawmakers need to approve a serious overhaul.
"What higher, more awesome power does government have than to take a man's home?" said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
Concerns about the taking of private property have grown nationwide after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer upheld the right of local governments to condemn private property so it can be transferred to other private entities that could generate more taxes.
Before outlining the committee's changes to strengthen an eminent domain bill that had been watered down in the House, Crowell predicted that "the developers and those who want eminent domain will go crazy."
During two days of public testimony, several people representing groups that use eminent domain called for a bill that adjusts rather than overhauls the process.
Joseph Colagiovanni, a St. Louis lawyer representing the TransCanada pipeline company, said the most common complaint among property owners who have gone through eminent domain is that they didn't receive enough money - a complaint no amount of legislating is going to completely silence.
"The process of eminent domain is largely not broken, so please don't fix it," he said.
The reaction Crowell had anticipated came true as several lobbyists and economic developers in the room groaned audibly while he explained the additional restrictions the committee had added.
The most significant change would bar the taking of private property through eminent domain "for predominantly economic development purposes." The bill approved by the House earlier this month barred the use of eminent domain for "solely" economic development.
Crowell's version also turns back several changes made by the House earlier this month that had been heralded by developers, utilities and business groups and decried by property rights groups.
The Senate's changes include requiring each parcel in a large development project not only be evaluated for blight, but also actually be found blighted in order to be taken through eminent domain. The House version allows nonblighted property to be taken if the surrounding areas are blighted.
The Senate committee version also calls for additional factors, such as replacement costs and the availability and cost of comparable property, to be considered when determining what landowners are paid for seized property.
One of the most controversial provisions adopted by the House, however, stayed in - a "heritage value" payment for those who lose property through eminent domain based upon how long they have owned it.
A law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who specializes in property law called it the most troubling part of the bill and a "bizarre, nonsensical" attempt that likely would be unworkable.
Law professor Dale Whitman, who testified that the eminent domain procedure needs tweaking and not wholesale changes, urged legislators to keep provisions included by the House and later approved by Crowell's committee to tighten the use of blight and to require the courts to review findings of blight.
"Beyond that, frankly, I don't see much in the bill worth enacting," he said.
No matter what changes are enacted, Ron Calzone, chairman of a group that has sponsored two proposed constitutional amendments to sharply limit the use of eminent domain, said ultimately the state constitution would need to be amended to make the changes Missourians are demanding.
"Please don't make it sound like this is the end of the story, and we can now rest on our laurels," he said.
Belleville News Democrat: http://www.belleville.com