WHEN THE U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2005 that local governments could seize a person's property for virtually any purpose - including turning the land over to private developers - alarmed state legislators around the country drew up rules corralling eminent domain powers.
In Georgia, a similar move was fired in part by the condemnation of more than 2,000 acres by Effingham County's Industrial Development Authority for a future industrial park.
In the 2006 legislative session, the General Assembly enacted strict new rules making it more difficult for local governments to seize property through eminent domain, and truncating the number of purposes for which land could be seized.
By so doing, however, the legislation has had the unintended consequence of making it difficult for cities to clean up blighted properties.
In Savannah, the problem is most common in houses owned by absentee owners who do not live in the area, and rental properties that landlords fail to maintain.
In a meeting with the area's state government delegation Thursday, Savannah alderman Tony Thomas rightly noted that because of neglect by landlords, "the quality of life is deteriorating in parts of the city."
Indeed, sagging, dilapidated houses are not only eyesores, but also contribute to the feelings of desperation and carelessness in a community that too often help to foster criminal behavior.
In its upcoming session in January, the General Assembly should consider targeted amendments to the state's current eminent domain laws, which will allow cities to take quicker action in cases where blighted properties pose health and safety hazards.
These amendments could include strict guidelines that nevertheless allowed cities a more expedited avenue for blight removal. In order to keep cities from taking homes solely for the purpose of economic development, the new provisions might also require any seized property to maintain the zoning level it had prior to seizure.
Such a provision would coordinate well with the city of Savannah's push to create in-fill housing in vacant or blighted areas.
Cities have a valid reason to want to keep blight at bay. State lawmakers should make it easier to guard against the wasting of vital housing stock.
Savannah GA Morning News: http://www.savannahnow.com