Eminent domain protection bills revived: Annapolis MD Capital, 3/14/07

By Liam Farrell

Slot machines, health care and the budget deficit may be headlining this year's [Maryland] General Assembly session, but lawmakers haven't forgotten one of last year's most targeted issues.

Sen. Ed DeGrange, Sr., D-Glen Burnie, has filed a bill that would strengthen compensation for people whose property is taken away through eminent domain.

Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property for the public good, usually by paying owners a reasonable price for it.

Cosponsors of the bill include Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D-Prince George's, and Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis.

"It's still an issue (but) it's not as prominent," Mr. DeGrange said. "People want to see protection of their property rights."

Last year more than 40 bills were introduced to restrict or alter the use of eminent domain. The surge in legislation was in response to the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London that essentially granted local governments the ability to seize homes for private development.

However, all of those bills failed.

Originally, Mr. DeGrange's bill would have restricted the conditions under which a government could seize a property for economic development.

For example, the property in question would have to be part of comprehensive development with "substantial and direct public uses and benefits," and the acquisition of the property could not solely benefit private entities.

A similar bill was introduced in 2006, but despite a favorable committee report it never made it to a vote.

Mr. DeGrange said election year politics played a role in that failure.

In a new version heard yesterday in Annapolis by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Mr. DeGrange amended his bill to mirror legislation introduced in the House by Del. Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.

There were concerns the previous legislation would make the Supreme Court decision a law, the senator said. Even through Mr. DeGrange disagrees with that interpretation, he has compromised.

"I think this will be more palatable to members when it gets to the floor," he said. "People would like to get the issue resolved."

Under the legislation, the government condemning a residential property would have to pay at least 110 percent of the highest appraisal and all relocation expenses for owners and tenants.

And, after relocating a small business, the government would pay the difference in net income for three years if profits drop below the average gains of the previous three years.

The government exercising eminent domain would also be charged with paying court fees.

"This is a step forward," said Bill Castelli of the Maryland Association of Realtors. "But it will not just change wholesale the eminent domain law in Maryland."

Critics of the bill said the legislation would add significant fees and create a much more onerous process.

Of the 400 eminent domain cases undertaken each year by the State Highway Administration, only about 5 percent go to court, said Joe Miklochuk of the SHA's Office of Real Estate.

"This would definitely tip the scales," he said. "It would tremendously increase not only our costs but the amount of trials."

But the uprooting of eminent domain means property owners should have greater deference, said Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore, who is a member of the committee.

Mr. Brochin said he owns commercial property in Baltimore and cannot imagine the logistical nightmare eminent domain would cause.

"I think you guys should be tipping the scales … to property owners," he said.

Tougher regulations
Mr. DeGrange's bill was not the only legislation about changing eminent domain heard by the Senate committee.

A bill proposed by Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, would hold a referendum on constitutional amendments to prevent any private property seizures for economic development purposes.

Forbidden eminent domain uses would include urban renewal, community revitalization or redevelopment, attracting new or encouraging existing businesses, job creation and generating tax revenue.

"(The Supreme Court) left it up to the states to deal with this issue, and Maryland should do that," Mr. Kittleman said. "It really is an issue between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots."

Local cosponsors of the bill include Sens. Janet Greenip, R-Crofton, and Bryan Simonaire, R-Pasadena. Identical legislation was heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last year but it was never voted on.

Mr. Simonaire, a member of the committee, does not believe the bill faces a different fate this year. But Mr. DeGrange's bill has "traction," he said.

"People are very concerned about … eroding property rights," he said. "They want protection from the government."

Passing Mr. DeGrange's bill could be the first step in getting even tougher on when the government can seize land, Mr. Simonaire said.

"Maybe in future sessions we ought to be able to go down that path," he said.

Annapolis MD Capital: http://www.hometownannapolis.com