Eminent domain changes in works: Hamilton OH Journal News, 5/19/07

Cities are wary of the state's efforts to alter their ability to take land for development

By Tim Tresslar

Ohio lawmakers continue to hammer out changes to eminent-domain laws while local officials are watching to make sure the rules don't hamper development efforts.

For the last few months, state senators have been crafting two measures — a bill that would change current eminent-domain laws and a constitutional amendment that would make such rules apply to all Ohio jurisdictions.

While popular with the public, officials from cities such as Cleveland and Youngstown oppose the constitutional amendment. They contend that it violates the state constitution by barring cities from setting their own rules. And economic-development officials worry that the proposed changes would make certain public-improvement projects more difficult and more expensive.

State Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, a sponsor of the constitutional amendment, said he hopes the General Assembly will approve both measures by August so the item can be placed on the November ballot. To get the issues before voters, passage would require 20 votes in the 33-member Senate and 60 votes in the 99-member House.

The senate bill, Coughlin said, would clarify the definition of blight for cities and other organizations trying to acquire property for economic development projects through eminent-domain proceedings.

The issue of eminent domain has gained steam in several states, since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said government could take nonblighted property for private development use. In 2006, the Ohio Supreme Court set higher standards that government must meet to take property.

Gov. Ted Strickland supports the aims of the proposed Ohio legislation, specifically protecting private property rights and limiting property taking, said Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Strickland. But the governor is concerned about the financial impacts of the measures, Dailey said. And Strickland wants state and local entities to have access to eminent domain when its justifiable, such as redevelopment of blighted areas, Dailey said.

State Sen. Gary Cates, R-West Chester Twp., said he supports both the bill and the proposed constitutional amendment. The driver behind them, he said, is to protect individual property owners' rights.

The laws as written will not hamper economic development efforts in blighted areas in local communities, Cates said.

John Mahoney, deputy director of the Ohio Municipal League, said many of the laws governing eminent domain were written years ago, and his organization doesn't update them.

"To revisit those statutes and to clean those up and update them, that's a good idea," he said.

For example, in addition to cities, several other entities — universities, park districts, utilities and railroads — can use eminent domain to take property, he said. He thinks it's legitimate for lawmakers to look at those powers, he said.

"You don't want to limit it so that the public good can't be served," Mahoney said. "That's the balance you always try to reach."

Mahoney said that laws require cities and other organizations to pay owners fair-market value for their property. And eminent-domain projects must go through a legal review before they can proceed, he said.

"It's a legitimate process," he said. "It just has to be limited."

John Fonner, executive director for the Butler County Transportation Improvement District, said the proposed measures would complicate economic development projects for agencies such as his.

Senate Bill 7, for example, would require that unelected boards and commissions, such as port authorities, have the approval of the elected officials before they take a property through eminent domain. This requirement could pose problems for multi-jurisdictional organizations such as his, Fonner said.

The TID's board is appointed by such entities as the Butler County commission, local municipalities and the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Regional governments. And it's unclear whether officials from each of these entities would have to sign off on every eminent-domain move, regardless of size and jurisdiction.

"I think it would become very difficult to do urban-renewal type projects," said Fonner, who also heads the Butler County Port Authority. "As difficult as they are already, they'd get even more difficult."

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