Rendell signs eminent domain bills into law: Main Line Times (Ardmore PA), 5/11/06

By Cheryl Allison

Ardmore was a prime example throughout Pennsylvania's debate on tightening eminent domain laws.

So it was only fitting that, when Gov. Ed Rendell signed two bills into law, Ardmore business owners were at his side.

Betty and E-ni Foo, owners of Hu-Nan Restaurant on Lancaster Avenue, were invited guests at a ceremony last Thursday afternoon at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, as Pennsylvania became the 18th state to enact eminent domain reform since the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision last June.

After two years of uncertainty, while the business they have operated for 30 years was under threat of taking and demolition as a part of Lower Merion Township's Ardmore Redevelopment Plan, E-ni Foo said the signing was not just a relief for his family.

"When he signed the bills, it really represents the victory of the common people," he said.

The pair of bills, which passed both the state House and Senate on unanimous votes late last month, significantly narrow the circumstances under which local governments and other agencies can take private property. They take effect in 120 days.

Senate Bill 881, the Property Rights Protection Act, generally prohibits the taking of property for private enterprise, while maintaining governments' rights to use eminent domain powers for public uses such as roads. It also redefines the standards under which properties can be declared blighted and taken for redevelopment, and sets a time limit on the blight declaration.

House Bill 2054, a companion bill, sets a structure for the revised eminent domain code, spelling out the process by which properties can be condemned, the notice that must be given, and how property and business owners will be compensated.

The legislation "protects the rights of property owners above all other interests," Rendell said in a statement. "Eminent domain should be used in a community's best interests, not the specialized interests of a few," he added. "This law will provide an important tool for state and local governments to take action on private lands and properties when necessary, but keeps a property owner's rights intact."

In Kelo, the nation's highest court set off a firestorm of dissent by finding, in a 5-4 decision, that private properties could be taken and turned over to a private developer for a public purpose of economic development, rather than the higher standard of public use. The U.S. House of Representatives responded by passing a resolution within days that federal funds should not be used for such projects.

Since last June, legislatures in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed legislation to reform their eminent domain codes.

The court decision also struck a chord in Lower Merion, where the township, having declared an area of downtown Ardmore blighted, had adopted a redevelopment plan that envisioned the taking and demolition of several properties in a block of Lancaster Avenue's historic business district.

In state hearings, Ardmore, and the Foos' situation in particular, became an illustration of the problems of a too-broad definition of blight and the potential impact of eminent domain for private development.

In March, with five newly elected members and state eminent domain reform on the horizon, Lower Merion's board of commissioners passed a resolution, effectively taking eminent domain for private enterprise off the table and reopening options for Ardmore redevelopment.

At the same time, groups like the Save Ardmore Coalition, which formed to fight the use of eminent domain in the township's plan, continued to push for passage of the state legislation. Sharon Eckstein, SAC's founding president and current vice president, said with the signing, one of the group's goals has been achieved. "We set our eyes on local things, the local election and the resolution, and then statewide and federal goals."

There are exceptions under the new laws. In a compromise that helped get SB881 passed, certain municipalities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chester and Norristown, can still condemn properties in areas that have already been designated as blighted. The exemption expires in 2012. New actions in those cities will have to meet the more stringent definition of blight.

Other municipalities will also be able to take properties for redevelopment, if they meet the new standards. Properties would have to be abandoned, beyond repair, or unfit for habitation; pose environmental hazards or other threats to public safety, for example. A certain percentage of properties would have to present those conditions for an area to be declared blighted.

It was unclear this week how the new blight definition might affect Ardmore redevelopment. Lower Merion Assistant Planning Director Angela Murray said the legislation would have to be reviewed by the township and redevelopment authority solicitors.

For E-ni Foo, however, the new laws are the firmest answer he has heard in two years to his worries about eminent domain.

While he and Betty never expected to be in the spotlight, "The real important thing for us is ... how the community got together and supported us," he said. "Now we know we're going to stay,we're looking forward to the future to make Hu-Nan even more hospitable."

Main Line Times: http://www.zwire.com