Bad turn on eminent domain: Johnson County (KS) Sun, 5/25/06


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The eminent domain legislation approved by the Kansas Legislature falls far short of a satisfactory solution to this emotionally tinged issue. In fact, legislative emotions appear to have prevented a rational, reasoned outcome.

Few people want their property seized for any reason. Americans have traditionally felt their land was protected through constitutional rights, although many concede land should be given up, with appropriate compensation, for projects that serve the greater public good, such as roads and utilities.

Temperatures flare when private operators attempt to use condemnation for their economic development projects. Public agencies in Kansas have used the power of eminent domain for years in private economic ventures, at times setting off a public furor.

The issue was raised in the Legislature after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that public agencies may require owners to give up their property, with compensation, for redevelopment by private interests.

The measure passed by the Legislature, which was signed into law by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius last seek, allows certain condemnations, among them utilities and street projects.

It has at least two flaws.

The new statute requires counties, cities and state units of government to have the blessing of the Legislature before they allow property to be condemned for an economic development project.

And, the new law does not become effective until July of next year.

The mandate on legislative approval will deprive local officials of making decisions that directly affect their constituents. Instead, final approval of a local project will be in the hands of legislators from throughout the state. They are not beholden to local voters; government accountability will suffer.

The delay of the effective date could open the way for a rash of projects over the next year or so as developers attempt to beat the deadline.

For the most part, debate broke along a line between urban interests and advocates of strict land rights, notably over prohibition of the taking of land for private economic development.

Supporters of condemnation for private-sector development contend it is useful to clear blighted areas that can be unsafe and crime-ridden. That would be helpful mainly in urban sections that include Johnson County.

There are parts of the county, especially in the northern tier of older cities, where renewal projects are needed to create new homes and business sites.

Opponents argue that condemnation is abused by politicians seeking to broaden the government's tax base and private developers intent on making money at the expense of property owners, in many instances ones at the lower income level.

To the opponents, eminent domain powers should not be imposed for private economic development in any circumstance, even though just payment is required.

There is one advantage in delaying the effective date. It provides time for the Legislature to revisit this thorny issue in next year's session, before the law goes into effect.

Legislators need to return eminent domain authority to the local level. They have far too many state-related responsibilities and should not be spending time on matters that cities and counties can and have resolved for years.

Indeed, the Legislature has exceeded its traditional 90-day session six of the last seven years, including 2006.

Kansas should have tightly drawn legislation for economic development condemnation that would strike a fair balance between preserving the rights of landowners and allowing public agencies to, under the most demanding regulations, take property that poses a danger to residents and could be improved by redevelopment.

Johnson County Sun: http://www.zwire.com