Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Minnesota Senate Restricts Eminent Domain

The push for eminent domain reform in Minnesota, and more than two dozen other states, was triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year. The court upheld a decision allowing cities to seize private property for public uses. Those public uses can include private business development, as long as the project creates jobs and generates additional tax revenue. Sen. Thomas Bakk (DFL-Cook) says his bill tightens the Minnesota's eminent domain law. "Most people were outraged by the Supreme Court decision that said government can take your home, or government can take your business and give it to another private owner," Bakk said. "I think people feel pretty strongly that the constitution should protect them from that."
Under Bakk's bill, local government would have little room left to use eminent domain for economic development. The bill also sets specific conditions that government entities must meet in order to take private land for public purposes. Public hearings would be required for all eminent domain actions. And property owners would receive adequate compensation for their land, as well any legal fees. Bakk says property owners need a level playing field. "Often times city planners, or even state agencies, when they decide they want to acquire a piece of property, they have the eminent domain card in their tool box and often times they play it too soon. And it gets used like a negotiating tool to bring about a settlement. So an awful lot of people end up selling, and are considered willing sellers, but they really sell with a gun to their head." Eminent domain reform enjoys broad bi-partisan support at the Capitol. But some lawmakers would like even tighter restrictions. Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) argued unsuccessfully to limit government acquisition of private property to only cases of public nuisance or environmental contamination. "Only under very limited circumstances should our cities, counties and other governmental agencies be able to say 'well, I like this company better, or I think that bakery is an eyesore, or I don't really want a liquor store on that corner.'" Despite the overwhelming support for the bill, skeptics remain.
Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, says he's concerned that setting high standards for eminent domain might get in the way of urban redevelopment projects. "It will depend on the circumstances, but if I were a developer and if I were looking at a complex redevelopment project and I wasn't at all certain that I going to be able to acquire all the property necessary, and the city is no longer able to make that happen through its power of eminent domain, I guess it's not inconceivable that certain projects just won't happen. Similar concerns were raised by one of the two senators who voted against the bill. Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) says changes to the eminent domain law go too far, too fast. Pappas says private property rights must be balanced with the need for livable communities. "We don't want to totally limit a city's ability to do redevelopment and our ability to get rid of pornographic bookstores and billboards or blighted properties. So, I think this is going to be a problem. I think we're going to see problems and lawsuits over the next two decades. And we're going to be back here every two years trying to fix this because we really haven't thought it through carefully," she said. A committee in the Minnesota House will finish work on an eminent domain reform Wednesday. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says a floor vote on the measure is expected by the first week of April.