Kansas’ new eminent domain law worries local governments: Kansas City MO Star, 7/1/07

By Mark Weibe & David Klepper

Wyandotte County officials breathed a sigh of relief as they wrapped up a deal on Indian Springs mall, just days before new eminent domain restrictions began in Kansas.

Meanwhile, Manhattan has been holding its breath, hoping the restrictions won’t thwart its downtown revitalization.

Projects dependent on a government’s condemnation powers could have a harder time getting started because restrictions that became effective July 1 force local governments to seek legislative approval before condemning property for economic development. To property rights advocates, the new legislation is a godsend, giving owners protection not available in most other states.

But local governments worry that the new law could jeopardize a host of revitalization projects.

“It could mean that hundreds of boarded-up crack buildings, run-down buildings and urban slums will be sent to the Legislature as individual bills or pieces of legislation,” said Unified Government spokesman and lobbyist Mike Taylor. “Some legislators say that’s not going to happen. But why wouldn’t it?”

Sunday’s deadline prompted some communities to move quickly.

Wyandotte County’s Unified Government had spent two months trying to condemn Indian Springs to make way for a mixed-use development.

Court-appointed appraisers recently valued the mall at $7.5 million, a price the government promptly paid.

In the county’s urban core — where converting blighted properties into livable spaces is a key strategy — the change has left neighborhood activist Beatrice Lee fretting over the future of certain projects. As president of the Douglass-Sumner Neighborhood Association, Lee has fought for improvements that would rid the area of about 250 vacant lots and dozens of boarded-up homes.

Located on two square miles north of downtown Kansas City, Kan., the neighborhood was one of three chosen last year to participate in a $1 million revitalization program.

Lee is trying to remain optimistic.

“I would hope that it wouldn’t stop the progress of trying to get this urban area the way it should be,” she said, “the way it should have been a long time ago.”

The new restrictions also have left officials in Manhattan wondering what will happen to their major downtown redevelopment plan.

Condemnation hearings have moved forward on three properties, but titles have not yet passed to the city.

“I can’t predict what exactly will happen,” Assistant City Manager Jason Hilgers said. “We feel we obviously met the intent of the statute.” But, he added, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Opponents of the legislation tried to add a provision allowing local officials to use eminent domain on blighted properties without legislative oversight, but it never made it out of a Senate committee.

“We think it’s going to significantly curtail economic development in Kansas,” said Sandy Jacquot, general counsel for the League of Kansas Municipalities. “And we think those decisions are best left local. … Why should a legislator from Dodge City vote on a Manhattan project?”

The law still allows governments to acquire property for public infrastructure projects such as roads and sewers without legislative approval. As in all eminent domain cases, those property owners would receive compensation.

Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, doubts eminent domain requests will snarl Topeka because many developers and municipalities probably won’t take their plans before a skeptical Legislature.

“We’ll never know how many (potential redevelopment projects) we lost,” he said.

Kansas City, Kan., officials say they will push again next year for more power to address blighted properties. A legislative committee is set to study the issue.

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat who opposed loosening the restrictions, urged patience.

“Give it an opportunity to work or to fail,” he said. “Don’t whittle away at it before it’s even implemented. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be one of the first to find a way to make it work.”

He said he expects the Legislature to give any proposed use of eminent domain a serious and fair hearing.

“Where we have those large projects, the Legislature will rapidly respond,” he said. “We don’t want to hamper economic development.”

Passed last year, the law was a response to the outcry following a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld governments’ power to condemn land for economic development.

Steven Anderson, an attorney with Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va., said Kansas’ law desperately needed reform. The new law, he said, “will go a long way to protect home and small business owners.”

But Michael Snodgrass, project director for Neighborhoods NOW, a part of Greater Kansas City LISC, Local Initiatives Support Corp., thinks property rights advocates pushed too far.

“Property rights are important,” Snodgrass said. “But with those rights come responsibilities. When those responsibilities, or lack thereof, infringe on the neighborhood, that’s when we think there’s a problem with the system.”

Snodgrass said it is difficult to revitalize neighborhoods without eminent domain, especially when owners of blighted property hold out for more money.

Financing is difficult then, he said, because banks view the blighted property as a serious threat to marketing the development.

LaVert Murray, the Unified Government’s development director, agreed. The threat of eminent domain, he said, is often enough to persuade property owners to negotiate more fairly.

Like Snodgrass, Murray fears the new law will make it more difficult to revitalize urban Kansas City, Kan. Broadening the definition of blight would help.

“We’re hoping the Legislature will realize that they’re tying the hands of local government and will quickly change the laws, restoring our ability to rebuild our communities,” Murray said.
The new law

Kansas’ eminent domain law has been partially revamped. For years, the state’s local governments have had the power to acquire property in the public’s interest, whether for public infrastructure projects or for economic development. But on July 1, the state enacted new restrictions on eminent domain requiring local governments to seek legislative approval before acquiring property for economic development projects. If the Legislature approves a government’s request to use eminent domain, it must also consider requiring compensation of at least 200 percent of the property’s fair market value.

Kansas City MO Star: http://www.kansascity.com