State hopes to limit eminent domain: Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina, 5/24/07

Could strengthen property protection

By Eric Johnson

North Carolina lawmakers might soon consider an amendment to the state constitution designed to prevent the forced sale of private property for economic development.

The issue has strong bipartisan support in the state House, where more than 90 lawmakers are sponsoring an amendment, and Republicans are pushing a similar measure in the Senate.

"I hope that something can get done," said Daren Bakst, a policy analyst for the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. "It's about getting an amendment that actually protects North Carolinians."

The vast majority of states have acted in the last two years to limit the use of eminent domain, the power that allows governments to force the sale of private property for public use.

Typically employed by state and local governments to purchase land for roadways, schools or other public projects, eminent domain became a hot-button issue after a 2005 Supreme Court ruling held that governments could take property for the purpose of economic development.

In that case, a homeowner named Susette Kelo sued the city of New London, Conn., to prevent the forced sale of her home to a private developer.

The Supreme Court's ruling in favor of New London prompted a backlash in state capitols across the country as lawmakers moved to more strictly define "public use" and limit property takings for economic development.

"When the Kelo decision came down, it really kind of shocked all of us, especially the general public," said Jennifer Zeigler, legislative affairs attorney for the Castle Coalition, a Virginia-based think tank dedicated to property rights issues.

"There's been a massive response, and 40 states have passed some kind of eminent domain reform since Kelo," she said.

North Carolina acted last year to strengthen existing state law defining the limits of eminent domain, and property rights advocates generally give the state high marks for strictly interpreting the "public use" clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But backers of an amendment to the state constitution say it is necessary to prevent lawmakers from weakening property protections in the future.

"Legislation can be changed at any time," Bakst said. "It's very easy to change, and we want to make sure this protection is guaranteed in the state constitution."

Andrew Romanet, General Counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said that local governments have no problem with a strict interpretation of "public use" and that the state has a history of avoiding property seizure for the sake of economic development.

"I have not seen our legislature, with either party in power, giving away the power of eminent domain," he said.

The only concern with a constitutional amendment, he added, is that it could have unplanned effects on the legitimate use of government power.

"The law of unintended consequences could occur, no matter how well it's drafted."

Any amendment would need to clear both the House and Senate before being submitted for a public referendum during statewide elections in November 2007.

Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina: http://www.dailytarheel.com