Landowners are often outgunned when battling large corporations and municipalities wielding the power of eminent domain, said John Scorse.
“It’s David against Goliath,” said the Galena, Kan., resident who owns, manages or leases more than 1,500 acres of land in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
On Thursday, Scorse was present when Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law restrictions on the use of eminent domain. Scorse believes the new law will help shift the balance to landowners when challenges arise over eminent domain.
“It’s a positive move forward,” he said. “This law is starting to level, or at least give our judicial system an opportunity to help ensure fairness.”
Scorse had earlier testified before the Missouri Task Force on Eminent Domain formed by the governor last year.
“It is a good step,” said Steve Anderson, coordinator of the Castle Coalition with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which tracks eminent-domain issues and legislation. “It is really good for farmers.”
States are passing laws in response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, in which that Connecticut community was granted authority to use eminent domain to take private property for a redevelopment project.
In the last year, 26 other states attempted or took steps similar to Missouri and Kansas, Anderson said.
Neither Scorse nor Anderson believes reforms enacted in Missouri or Kansas this year go far enough, but each praised what has been accomplished.
“They’ve tried to include items like ‘heritage value’ if the family has owned it (land) longer than 50 years,” said Scorse, referring to the Missouri law. “For a lot of people, land is a part of their family. It’s a way of life. It’s a way to raise your children.”
That designation could add as much as 50 percent to the fair market value of the land in Missouri.
Scorse also likes the fact that, under the Missouri law, farms cannot be declared blighted and that those using eminent domain are required to look at alternative routes that may have less impact on landowners.
Anderson said Missouri needs stricter definitions.
“The problem in Missouri is that factors used to determine blight are vague,” he said.
Anderson also praised Kansas officials. Kansas law now prohibits property from being acquired and transferred from one private owner to another except in limited circumstances. The Kansas law also tightens up blight definitions and limits the abilities of municipalities to take property for economic development.
Allen Gill, city manager in Pittsburg, Kan., said the new Kansas law probably would have blocked a development that he believes has been good for that community.
In recent years, Pittsburg paid $3.3 million for seven properties that eventually became the site for the Home Depot development on the north side of town. The city used eminent domain to acquire two of the properties, including 7.5 acres from Acton Development Corp.
City officials saw eminent domain as a last resort after failing to reach a deal with Acton, Gill said.
Calls to Acton Development were not returned, but Gill said that without the use of eminent domain, the city would not have been able to develop an area with environmental problems.
Gill also said the development brought in 150 jobs and will — when tax-increment financing is paid off — provide additional revenue for the city.
“This whole project was a $28 million investment,” he said, but more than that, it spun off other growth around one of the city’s entry portals.
“What the project has done for the city is resulted in numerous other developments on North Broadway,” he said.
Gill also said that laws such as those passed in Missouri and Kansas could make it tougher for cities to develop core areas, and could push development to the edge of communities, gobbling up farmland, “and inner cities will be left to rot.
“One of the things it is going to do is make urban-renewal projects a lot more difficult, if not impossible," Gill said. "It’s not good public policy, not sound environmental policy, not sound urban renewal policy.”
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