Eminent domain law lacks flexibility: Wichita KS Eagle, 10/11/07


When the U.S. Supreme Court blessed a local government's taking of property for private development in 2005, its decision was met with a shudder of restrictive legislation by the states. Understandably, there was bipartisan outrage at the idea that City Hall could seize your home or business and hand it to a mall developer. The people pushed back.

Now, natural disasters and other real-world cases are shoving the debate the other way in Kansas. Legislators need to account for reality, not just as it's playing out in Greensburg and postflood southeast Kansas but also in blighted urban areas.

To its credit, Kansas didn't respond as rashly as some states to the decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. Lawmakers just made eminent domain hard to use, let alone abuse, for economic development.

But the new law is restricting officials in Greensburg, Coffeyville and elsewhere in Kansas from rebuilding some housing. When people walk away from their storm-damaged properties, public officials now need the Legislature's OK to put the land to productive use, creating red tape and delays that threaten communities' ability to rebound. Sometimes, as in Osawatomie, officials can't even find property owners.

Legislators should improve the law to help rather than hinder in the aftermath of natural disaster. But they shouldn't stop there. As the League of Kansas Municipalities, the city of Wichita and Wyandotte County argued unsuccessfully last session, communities need flexibility to use eminent domain for economic development as a last resort, including for blight remediation.

Mike Taylor, public relations director for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, told The Eagle editorial board Wednesday that the 2006 law makes no distinction between the taking of farmland for a shopping center and the taking of boarded-up crack houses that a faith-based group is ready to turn into low-income housing. And he said no process has been established for how and when a community might ask for legislative approval (only during the regular session's 90 days?).

The law also gives the Legislature the power to hike purchase prices to 200 percent or more of fair market value, in effect rewarding slumlords and sticking it to local taxpayers. And it should bother Kansans more that the law turns local planning decisions over to the state. "It puts economic development suddenly in the realm of the worst kind of politics," Taylor said.

State lawmakers were right to fortify Kansans' property rights in 2006, in the process giving themselves a prime accomplishment to campaign on. But they now have a duty to clean up the law to aid both communities ravaged by storms and neighborhoods devastated by blight.

Wichita KS Eagle: http://www.kansas.com