A bill and a ballot issue that would change Ohio communities' use of eminent domain passed the state Senate on Thursday, but not before a couple of hours of debate on the need for the legislation and the wording of the potential constitutional amendment.
Senate Joint Resolution 1, the more hotly contested of the two, passed by a party-line vote of 20-11. The final vote on Senate Bill 7 was 29-3.
Both, which will head to the Ohio House for consideration, would establish standards for the use of eminent domain and limit public entities' ability to take private property for private economic development projects.
They were written following state and national court decisions that affected how eminent domain could be used. One decision allowed local governments to take land in non-blighted areas and transfer it to private entities for redevelopment, while the other raised the standard governments must meet in order to take land from a private property owner.
Sen. Tim Grendell, a Republican from Chesterland and sponsor of the legislation, outlined the basic provisions of SB 7: objectively defining blight, providing ample and early public notice and involvement in eminent domain proceedings, expediting the appeals process for affected property owners and protecting farmland.
"This is an important day for private property rights in Ohio," he said.
Dale Miller, a Cleveland Democrat, opposed the bill, stating he feared its impact on urban revitalization and legitimate public projects.
"I am very concerned about private property rights ...," he said. "I believe that we do need legislation and that we do need to more clearly define what is an appropriate exercise of eminent domain power. ... (But) what is proposed here is a severe overreaction. I do believe it will restrict or eliminate development that is a legitimate exercise of eminent domain authority."
He added, "The House has a lot of work to do on this bill, and I think I would implore them to very carefully consider what we're about to do here and come up with a very substantial revision so that we have something that is reasonable, that is balanced, that deals with the problem but doesn't throw the baby out with the bath."
Tom Sawyer, a Democrat and former mayor of Akron, also opposed. Holding an illustration of the city, circa 1846, and noting the changes the community has experienced in a century and a half, he said cities need to have the power to remove blight, engage in redevelopment and protect other property owners.
"The definition of blight is impossibly high," he said. "In many portions of our larger cities, it would require dropping a bomb in order to qualify for the blighted standard."
SJR 1 was offered by Sen. Kevin Coughlin, a Republican from Cuyahoga Falls. It would place on the statewide ballot a constitutional amendment calling for General Assembly-created standards for the use of eminent domain (like those in Grendell's bill) to apply in all areas of the state, including home-ruled cities. As it stands, cities have the ability to set their own standards for eminent domain.
"Those who live in cities in our state, their property rights against government abuse are no less important than those who live out in the townships and in other places ...," Coughlin said.
"It's a uniform right," Grendell said. "There is no reason to make the residents of Ohio municipalities second-class citizens when it comes to the protection of their fundamental property rights."
He later added for those voting against the resolution: "You're saying that 'I don't trust the people of Ohio to be able to vote on the issue.' ... We ought to give the people of Ohio the final say."
But John Boccieri, a Democrat from New Middletown, took issue with the use of the word "primarily." According to the resolution, the amendment would "prohibit a public authority from taking private property for a public use 'primarily' for the purpose of increasing the revenues available to any public authority."
Boccieri said a task force that studied the issue recommended eminent domain could not be used "solely" for increasing revenues, and the change in wording made the ultimate effective too broad.
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