Group wants to revise city property law : Columbia MO Daily Tribune, 3/12/07

By Matthew LeBlanc

A local Libertarian group wants to change city law to protect private landowners from efforts by the city to seize their property for economic development.

Prompted in part by a city consultant’s proposal to redevelop part of downtown, the Boone Liberty Coalition has begun a petition drive to force the Columbia City Council to consider changing its eminent domain ordinance. If the council doesn’t act, the proposed ordinance would go to a public vote.

The change would prohibit the city from taking land for private developments. It also would further define "public use," the legal principle under which the city can now condemn private property for projects such as street or sewer improvements.

Glenn Nielsen, a spokesman for the Boone Liberty Coalition, said his group launched its effort today in response to a plan from Sasaki Associates that would create a downtown "garden district" and extend Elm Street east to College Avenue.

The city has no immediate plans to implement any of Sasaki’s suggestions, but Nielsen said changes to the city law are necessary before final decisions on the plan, which could affect landowners east of Elm, are final. "The Boone Liberty Coalition has always been interested in the eminent domain issue," he said. "When we saw the potential to use eminent domain for a redevelopment downtown, we saw that as an opportunity to get involved."

Missouri lawmakers last year passed a measure that beefed up state condemnation laws to prohibit cities from taking property solely for economic development. Columbia leaders say they are bound by those changes regardless of whether the municipal law is changed. However, that doesn’t mean the city will not use eminent domain to secure land for projects included in the Sasaki plan.

City Manager Bill Watkins said the term "economic development" often can be vague. For example, he said, road projects such as the construction of an interchange at Gans Road and Highway 63 in southeast Columbia will lead to economic benefits for at least one private company in the area.

Watkins said it is the city’s policy to try to negotiate with property owners before condemnation is used to secure land for such projects.

"As with all of our projects, eminent domain is an absolute last resort," he said.

The Boone Liberty Coalition has proposed changes to the city law that would limit the use of condemnation to securing private land for utilities, acquiring abandoned property or ridding areas of "public nuisances," among other things.

Nielsen said the state law did not go far enough to protect the rights of private landowners because it does not specifically prohibit cities from turning properties over to private developers.

Dale Whitman, a University of Missouri-Columbia law professor who specializes in property law, said a move to restrict the ordinance could handcuff cities that need to complete projects such as road improvements and redevelopment plans. Cities can only turn condemned property over to private developers if they are able to prove economic development was not the only reason for the use of eminent domain, he said.

"If you take economic development literally, almost every project the city does has some impact on economic development," he said.

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