Eminent domain laws in need of makeover: The (Vancouver WA) Columbian, 8/8/06

By Don Brunell

A speeding freight train is bearing down on our state Capitol just like it is many other states. Legislators still have a chance to stop it, or at least slow it down, if they will only act. The train is fueled by resentment, frustration and anger over issues related to eminent domain.

The power of eminent domain allows government to take private property for "the public good." Historically, governments have used this power judiciously for significant public projects like highways, dams and bridges, but in recent years, government has expanded its reach, seizing property for relatively minor projects like bike paths.

While Washington's constitution affords additional protections from local governments taking private property for a private use, other eminent domain issues exist. For example, the Seattle Monorail Project used the power of eminent domain to purchase 34 businesses, homes and properties, sometimes over the objections of the owners.

In the end, the Monorail Project died, but officials did not give any of the other owners a chance to buy back their homes or businesses at the original price. Instead, Monorail officials are selling those properties at a profit to pay off the project's debts.

In 2003, Sound Transit condemned Kenneth and Barbara Miller's property for a park-and-ride lot without telling them. The Millers knew officials were interested in their property, but they did not hear anything more about it. The Millers were not even notified about the meeting at which the decision was made.

The Millers sued but lost.

Officials may be buoyed by their court victory and the ability to retire debt by selling off seized properties at a profit. But they shouldn't be. Unless lawmakers act to protect home and business owners in our state from unfair seizures of property, voters will take measures into their own hands through the initiative process.

The Legislature did not specifically address these issues as they relate to eminent domain. Lawmakers should reconsider, because Washington has its own examples of eminent domain abuse.

The intense anger over eminent-domain-related abuses should not come as a surprise. Seizing someone's home or business is not just another real estate transaction. In America, there is a special, powerful dynamic involved in taking a person's private property. In fact, our founding fathers equated the ability to own property with liberty itself.

President George Washington said, "Private property and freedom are inseparable."

President John Adams wrote, "Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist."

John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote, "No power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent."

If recent trends continue, Washington voters could approve even more restrictive measures in the future. If that happens, lawmakers and public officials will have only themselves to blame.

Initiatives are not the ideal way to make law because poorly written measures and technical errors can cause unintended consequences. State lawmakers could head off an initiative by modifying eminent domain laws to provide clear and adequate notice, and allow private property owners to buy back their homes and businesses for the original purchase price when public projects are canceled.

The (Vancouver WA) Columbian: http://www.columbian.com

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce: www.awb.org