Parties unite on eminent domain: Seattle WA Post-Intelligencer, 1/9/07


By Bill Virgin

Who says bipartisanship is dead? Every now and then, an issue surfaces that manages to unite people across partisan and ideological lines.

In Washington state, that issue is eminent domain.

Or more specifically, eminent domain when the purpose is to transfer private property to another private owner for a private-sector use.

A controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 has spurred both Republican and Democratic politicians to push legislation to address at least one concern raised in connection with the issue.

But, as is typical in Washington, the big decisions on eminent domain have likely been postponed until after this session, and may be put in the hands of - what else - a task force.

What will be fascinating to watch is just how long the current prevailing, boundary-crossing spirit lasts.

If divisions occur and objections to doing something significant on the issue of eminent domain arise, look for them to come not from between political parties, but between city and state officials. For this mess we have to thank the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision that government can take private property through eminent domain, even if the intent is to use it not for a "public" purpose such as a school or highway but for private economic development.

The outcry was immediate and widespread. A number of states, including Oregon, put measures on the ballot to ban eminent domain when used for private economic development. Oregon's measure, to prohibit a public body from condemning private property with the intention of transferring it to another private party, passed with 67 percent of the vote.

In Washington, initial pronouncements that restrictions on eminent domain in this state would limit Kelo-like cases were met with considerable skepticism. Those skeptics were not reassured when the state Supreme Court last year issued a decision on a different part of the eminent-domain debate, having to do with notification. Sound Transit argued, and was upheld, that a posting on its Web site constituted sufficient notice that it was planning to condemn a piece of property.

The response to that is a bill backed by Gov. Chris Gregoire (Democrat), Attorney General Rob McKenna (Republican) and House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler (D-Hoquiam), which requires direct notification to a property owner as well as a newspaper legal notice of a meeting at which property condemnation is to be discussed.

"It's not asking too much to require that a $4.64 certified letter be sent to property owners who may have their property taken without their consent," McKenna said in a statement last month. "We shouldn't expect people to click through hundreds of Web pages every week to make sure their property isn't being considered for condemnation."

Last week McKenna announced plans for a task force to review the state's eminent-domain laws, with a report due in time for the 2008 legislative session. Who will serve on this task force hasn't been announced. According to a release from the Washington Policy Center, which sponsored the news conference at which McKenna made the announcement, the task force's goal is "to seek ways to reduce the threat of eminent-domain abuse without interfering with legitimate exercises of the government's ability to condemn property for legitimate public uses."

Contained in that quote is the very point that might cause the task force to grind to a halt or issue a non-committal report.

One of the prime issues involving eminent-domain laws in Washington is a provision in the state's Community Renewal Law that allows municipalities to designate large areas as "blighted." That permits the transfer of private property for economic development by others, critics contend; the definition of blighted is so broad and vague, they add, as to permit its application almost anywhere.

But that broadness and vagueness are attractive to cities contemplating sweeping economic redevelopment of multiple blocks of property or entire neighborhoods. The city of Renton proposed a redevelopment plan of the Highlands area until residents yelled loud enough to block it.

The city of Seattle, meanwhile, has been proposing a redevelopment plan for Rainier Valley. According to information from the city's Web site, "In the rare instances when eminent domain may be used, it would be used as a last resort, and would require approval from the community renewal board and Seattle City Council."

The cities may decide they'd just as soon not give up such powers that, they would argue, can be used to achieve some greater public good such as "community renewal." The property owners wary of their real estate going to someone else's profit-making venture likely won't see it the same way.

Watch who gets named to the task force, and who tries to lobby it, to get a sense of whether the Legislature gets anything definitive to work with next year - or whether it gets the sort of report that can be summed up as "on the one hand, on the other hand, further study is needed."

Seattle WA Post-Intelligencer: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com