Newman - Bill limiting eminent domain will likely please no one: Lynchburg VA News & Advance, 2/23/07

By Conor Reilly

A Lynchburg [VA state] lawmaker is working to craft compromise legislation that would limit the state’s power to take private property using eminent domain.

“I can absolutely assure you that everyone will dislike it some,” said Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. “But the Kelo decision just screams for us to fix this problem.”

He’s referring to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed an economically depressed Connecticut town to take private homes and give the land to a private company that would generate more jobs and more tax revenue for the locality.

Two bills that differ in one significant respect are still alive - one passed by the state Senate, the other by the House of Delegates. Both bodies spent Friday negotiating a compromise that will likely be considered today, the final day the General Assembly is in session.

The Senate version would allow local governments to acquire all property in a designated “redevelopment area” provided that area is more than 85 percent blighted - so a property that is well maintained could still be taken. That provision is absent from the House version.

Newman, who was appointed to serve on the eminent domain conference committee, said he staunchly opposes language that allows private property to be taken if it isn’t a blight.

“I believe that is wrong,” he said. “It is a basic fundamental right that property should not be taken away simply because it’s near a run-down property.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, agreed.

“The Senate (version) kind of blows a hole in the carefully crafted agreement,” he said.

Last year, both the House and the Senate passed similar legislation before talks broke down at the end of the session.

Cline said that voters would take note if the General Assembly fails to address the problems created by the Kelo decision.

While lawmakers are in talks on Capitol Square, Lynchburg officials are keeping close watch because they say the proposed laws are unnecessary and could restrict an important tool used locally to target blighted properties.

Lynchburg Housing Authority Executive Director Ed McCann said that the legislation may have “unintended consequences.”

The housing authority has used eminent domain on property not designated as blighted in the past, he said.

When a property has a bad or unclear title, eminent domain is often the only way to clear up the issue and allow it to be sold or redeveloped.

“I think it’s an important tool,” McCann said.

Officials are also concerned that if a bill passes, cities across the state will lose the ability to use the “spot blight” program, designed to get rundown properties out of the hands of irresponsible owners and into the hands of responsible ones.

The city began using its program in 1999 and has since dealt with 60 blighted properties in and around downtown Lynchburg. The city had to resort to eminent domain in seven of those cases.

Since then, the program raised the assessed values of those 60 properties by $1 million.

Cline, though, said the lengthy tentacles of eminent domain need to be reined in.

He said he hoped the conference committee would compromise but still move more toward the House version of the bill.

“It’s all about compromise,” he said. “Each side needs to give a little.”

Lynchburg VA News & Advance: http://www.newsadvance.com