It's received little fanfare, but a Nov. 7 ballot proposal aims to set strict limits on government's ability to claim privately owned property.
Proposal 4 would amend the state constitution to end the use of eminent domain for private economic development purposes. Traditionally, governments have claimed eminent domain to acquire private property for public purposes, such as building roads or schools.
The proposal also would require governments to provide compensation worth 125 percent of fair market value when condemning properties.
The measure is largely a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2005 that pitted several families against the city of New London, Conn., which wanted to condemn their homes to allow a pharmaceutical facility to expand.
In that case, a divided court permitted the condemnation because it found a public benefit in the growth of jobs and tax revenue that would result from the project. But the court said individual states were free to make their own laws limiting the practice.
"That struck me and a lot of my constituents and a lot of the residents of the state of Michigan as going against the basic property rights that have been established by the state and our nation," said state Sen. Tony Stamas, R-Midland. He introduced the joint resolution late in 2005 that placed the measure on the ballot.
Michigan has a history with the issue.
Most famously, the state Supreme Court in 1981 permitted the use of eminent domain in Poletown, the neighborhood that straddled Detroit and Hamtramck, to allow General Motors Corp. to build a new plant that it said would employ 6,000 workers. The court ruled at the time that the promised economic benefits to each city comprised a public benefit.
The decision forced the relocation of about 3,500 residents and paved the way for the demolition of roughly 1,500 homes and businesses, several churches and a hospital.
But in 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed its Poletown decision in a case pitting a property owner against Wayne County, which wanted to clear land to make way for a commercial and industrial project near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The state House and Senate have since passed legislation intended to place the high court's ruling into state statute and compliment the proposed constitutional amendment.
And that's the rub for some critics of the proposal, who say a constitutional amendment simply isn't needed.
"You don't put a constitutional amendment, which is serious business, on the ballot when you already agree with the law as it sits today," said former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, who has argued condemnation cases for property owners and governments for more than three decades as an attorney. He says the amendment's language is too broad.
Logie and others, including Arnold Weinfeld of the Michigan Municipal League, say the proposal would effectively make it more expensive for local municipalities to redevelop blighted or contaminated areas. Eminent domain was used to build parts of downtown Grand Rapids, they note, as well as Comerica Park and Ford Field in Detroit.
"I think you can point to many examples where it has been a useful tool for communities as they go about the business of redevelopment," said Weinfeld, director of state and federal affairs for the Municipal League.
Stamas said the proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee that a future court couldn't adopt the earlier Poletown decision. He said the proposal also would tighten the definition of blighted property.
"We wanted to make very clear that the burden of proof is on the government and give the property owners every protection that is possible," he said.
The measure enjoys support from the Protect Our Property Rights Coalition, which includes organizations such as the Michigan Association of Realtors and the National Federation of Businesses. And legislation to adopt the 2004 state Supreme Court ruling has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
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