NC legislators want eminent domain amendment put to voters in '07: Myrtle Beach SC Sun News, 4/10/07

By Gary Robertson, Associated Press

[North Carolina] State laws that bar land condemnation solely for economic development don't go far enough for some lawmakers, who want voters to decide whether to emboss the policy in the state constitution.

After failing to get a proposed constitutional amendment on last year's ballot, House members have renewed their effort. A bill co-sponsored by 96 of the chamber's 120 members - eight more than last year - would ask voters in November to amend the constitution so "private property shall not be taken except for a public use."

The amendment is needed, supporters say, to make it harder for loopholes closed in legislation approved last year to show up in future laws.

"You want to make sure that when the current crop of state legislators, city council members and county commissioners are gone, there's a protection in place so that their successors won't be tempted to do it," said Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, one of the House bill's primary sponsors.

A law approved last year eliminated a handful of exceptions that allowed specific towns and cities in North Carolina to condemn land for economic development. The law was proposed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that such condemnations were legal but gave states the ability to ban the practice.

However, the North Carolina law doesn't prevent loopholes from being reinstated, and a constitutional amendment would be harder to change, some lawmakers say.

The amendment wouldn't allow governments to transfer condemned land to a third party that wanted to build on it to make a profit, unless the land was in so-called blighted areas.

House Speaker Joe Hackney said an amendment isn't needed at this time, because the 2006 law satisfies concerns highlighted in the Supreme Court decision.

"I think we ought to be very careful about amending the constitution," said Hackney, D-Orange.

The U.S. and state constitutions provide for eminent domain, which gives government the authority to take private property for public use, usually in exchange for compensation to the property owner.

States across the country reviewed their eminent domain laws after the high court ruled 5-4 that the town of New London, Conn., could take houses on property that would be used for a hotel and convention center. However, the justices said states could ban such condemnations.

At least 24 states have enacted eminent domain laws since then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last fall, voters in nine states approved constitutional amendments restricting such condemnations.

A similar amendment proposed last year in North Carolina was supported by 88 House members, but Democratic leaders blocked a legislative vote. Then-House Speaker Jim Black said Republicans wanted the proposed amendment on the ballot to boost GOP voter turnout.

Republicans said the constitutional question would be put to voters this November when no state offices would be on the ballot. The Senate version of the bill has 18 co-sponsors, all Republicans and about the same number as last year.

This year's House bill has been sent to the Rules Committee, which allowed the bill to die last year. The current chairman, Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, is a co-sponsor but said he doesn't know whether the bill will be heard.

To get on the ballot, the proposal would have to be approved by three-fifths of members in each chamber - or 72 members of the House and 30 in the Senate.

Bill sponsors can attempt to get a floor vote if the committee doesn't hear the amendment.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, one of the bill's four primary sponsors, said he remains optimistic the proposal will ultimately be heard.

"We have a willingness on the House leadership to follow the rules," Stam said. "Unfortunately the rules still give the House leadership the ability to kill anything it wants to kill."

Myrtle Beach SC Sun News: http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com