North Providence bans eminent-domain land takings: Providence (RI) Business News, 7/15/06

Town acts after 2 bills fail to clear Assembly

By Justin Sayles

North Providence [RI] Town Councilman Paul Caranci had been waiting for a statement on eminent-domain takings of land for economic development.

But when it came, it wasn’t handed down by the R.I. General Assembly. It came from Caranci himself.

In a unanimous vote this month, the North Providence Town Council approved a Caranci-sponsored ordinance that strengthens the safeguards against takings of land for public purposes, forcing the town to hold two public hearings before it can seize any private lands, and prohibits the town from taking private land and handing it over to another private entity. The state still has the power to do so.

The North Providence ordinance came two weeks after the close of the 2006 General Assembly session, which saw the introduction of at least six pieces of legislation aimed at prohibiting or further restricting the R.I. Economic Development Corporation’s ability to exercise the power of eminent domain.

The legislature itself was attempting to address the issues highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision, the 2005 ruling that governments can take land through eminent domain for purposes of economic development, provided that no ordinance or law is in place prohibiting it.

Despite the passage of one bill in each house, the legislators adjourned late last month with the issue still unsettled. The Senate and House bills – sponsored, respectively, by Sen. James C. Sheehan, D-North Kingstown, and Rep. Charlene M. Lima, D-Cranston – failed on the last day of the General Assembly session, when each chamber abstained from putting the other’s measure to a vote.

Under Lima’s nine-line bill, eminent-domain seizures would have been prohibited if undertaken by any “public corporation, municipality, quasi-state agency, state agency, or any political subdivision thereof … for the purposes of conferring a private benefit or use for a particular private entity.”

Sheehan’s four-page bill would have placed greater safeguards on eminent-domain takings for private development, but it would still allowed them in some situations, after a lengthy review. The Assembly and the governor would have had the ultimate say on a project, but only after the RIEDC had submitted comprehensive impact analyses and public hearings had been held. His bill also called for reimbursement to the property owner that Sheehan said would go beyond “just compensation” – the current standard.

Land seizures for private use can be necessary, Sheehan said. For example, if Bristol-Myers Squibb had decided to locate a facility at Quonset Point, instead of in Massachusetts, several businesses might have needed to be relocated. “It’s those types of projects that could suffer if we had an absolute moratorium for any kind of taking,” he said.

But Lima said she couldn’t support a measure, like Sheehan’s, that still would allow such private-development takings. People “have a constitutional right to [their] homes that should never, ever be taken away,” she said.

“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get a state law in place this year,” Lima said. “But I felt I would’ve been selling out the people if we settled for legislation just to say we passed eminent domain.”

Both Lima and Sheehan have been attempting to address the issue since before the Supreme Court made its ruling in Kelo; both vowed this month to resubmit their bills during the Assembly’s 2007 session, should they be re-elected.

Caranci, the North Providence councilman, is also a member of the Government Affairs Committee of the R.I. Association of Realtors. He said that the real estate board had considered both pieces of legislation “palatable,” but that Sheehan’s bill received wider support among Realtors because it went further in details, including the specific assertion that the taking of private commercial property was restricted.

Caranci said he believes all private-development takings should be banned.

Ironically, his interest in the issue arose more than 20 years ago, when he was in charge of eminent-domain takings for the R.I. Resource Recovery Corporation and the organization took land from a family of Polish immigrants. The family was being paid more than fair market value, he said. But on the day the deal closed, the wife came in sobbing.

Caranci said he asked whether they felt they had been fairly compensated. The husband believed they had, but the taking was still disheartening to a family who had come to this country seeking to achieve the American dream of owning their own home, as they had never been able to do in Poland.

“As soon as they finished, the government came and took it,” Caranci said.

Providence Business News: http://www.pbn.com