Eminent Domain Rules Slanted: (Wheeling WV) Intelligencer, 5/29/06

Ohioans who worry about the expansion of local governments’ authority to take property through eminent domain proceedings now have a poster child illustrating one concern. He is Scott Wolstein, a developer with big plans for Cleveland.

Wolstein wants to develop an area of the “Flats” neighborhood in Cleveland — but he doesn’t want to pay what some owners of existing properties are asking for their land and buildings. So, he is getting help from the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, which has filed eminent domain lawsuits against owners of two properties.

After the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that local governments can use eminent domain power to obtain property needed by private developers, Ohio’s General Assembly responded to public concern by enacting new limits on such proceedings. But, as has been the case in several states, Ohio lawmakers left the door open for abuse. A local government still can use eminent domain to help a developer, merely by declaring an area to be “blighted.” That’s the tactic being used in Cleveland.

But more than simply obtaining the two properties involved in eminent domain proceedings now may be at stake.

In an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Wolstein made it clear that the two property owners in effect are being used as a warning to others: Play ball, or wind up in court on the wrong end of an eminent domain lawsuit.

Wolstein told The Plain Dealer that he was “happy we’ve taken the step of filing, and I would expect more to come.” In a thinly veiled threat, he added, “Until you show that you’re serious enough to (use eminent domain lawsuits), there won’t be serious negotiations.” Owners of other properties being sought by Wolstein are expected to read that as an ultimatum.

Eminent domain proceedings, then, can be used as a lever to pressure property owners to be more flexible in their negotiations with private developers. That gives developers a major edge — and puts property owners at a serious disadvantage.

We don’t think that is what the nation’s founders had in mind when they provided that local governments could take private property for public purposes. Ohio legislators should take another look at the eminent domain law. Clearly, the playing field has been tilted toward developers — and that should be corrected.

The Intelligencer: http://www.news-register.net