During a 2 1/2-hour long meeting today, task force members stated their position on three questions: should nothing be done to change Ohio's state eminent domain law, do procedural changes need to be made to state law and does Ohio need a constitutional amendment?
"I think doing nothing is not an option," said Sen. Tim Grendell, co-chair of the task force, at the end of the meeting, echoing the feelings of most of the committee.
The 25-member committee, which includes Larry Gearhardt, director of local affairs for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, was created last year in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous "Kelo" decision. The high court ruled that a government could take private property to advance the economic development efforts of another private entity. The task force has until April 1 to recommend to legislators whether some type of change is needed to state law or the constitution. If the committee decides changes are necessary, it has until Aug. 1 to make specific recommendations.
On Farm Bureau's behalf, Gearhardt submitted a four-page proposal for revising Ohio's eminent domain law. Because eminent domain is an issue that touches every property owner, he said Ohio residents should be given a chance to voice their opinion by voting on a constitutional amendment that would limit the taking of property as in the Kelo case.
"Individuals need to have their private property rights protected from government," he said. "I think we owe it to the citizens of Ohio to let them weigh in on a constitutional amendment."
Task force members seemed to favor not recommending a constitutional amendment until Gene Krebs, state director of Greater Ohio, pointed out that other groups were poised to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. He noted that a constitutional amendment crafted by the task force would probably be more fair and realistic than one written by a private group. If two eminent domain constitutional amendments were on the ballot, the one with the most votes would win.
"If we don't do (a constitutional amendment), the public will do it. We may get a worse alternative," Grendell said.
Rep. Bill Seitz, task force co-chair, said that if the constitution was not amended cities and villages would still have the power of home rule and could set their own eminent domain standards.
"They could say that in 1912 we gave you home rule and they will do whatever they want," he said.
Grendell, Seitz and other task force members said they were impressed with Farm Bureau's proposal. Some members who recommended little change to state law admitted that the taking of farmland needed to be more fully addressed.
"We need protection for citizens. I'm liking a lot of the proposals Farm Bureau is bringing forward," said Sen. Kimberly Zurz.
Some of Farm Bureau's suggestions for eminent domain law revisions include:
- Never consider agricultural land enrolled in the CAUV real property tax program to be blighted.
- Have landowner's fees and costs (including appraiser fees) paid if a jury awards more than a specified percentage of the last offer by the government agency. In addition to fair market value plus attorney fees, compensation should include damages to the residue of the property, complete relocation costs and lost business profits for businesses forced to relocate.
- Define blight based on objective standards only; subjective standards such as "deteriorating" and "deteriorated" should be eliminated from the definition.
- Require the government agency, not a private interest such as a developer, to pay for a blight study.
- Prohibit a non-elected board from using eminent domain or require that a non-elected board have the appropriation approved by an elected body after a public hearing.
- Require a de novo hearing to be completed through the appeal process before a compensation hearing starts.
- Give landowners the opportunity to buy property back at the original purchase price if land was taken but not used for a project.
- Reverse or change the burden of proof that is currently on the landowner to prove that the government is wrong.
- Have an ombudsman for landowners to consult in eminent domain proceedings.
Ohio Farm Bureau Federation: http://www.ofbf.org