Bills walk delicate line of eminent domain

January 21, 2010 

Two bills were introduced in the state Legislature last week to reign in the government's powers of eminent domain.

The bills have the support of legislators from both sides of the aisle, state Attorney General Rob McKenna and property owners threatened by government land grabs that don’t meet the true test of eminent domain, which is, to take private property — with compensation — for public use such as road construction.

The bills strike the balance between private property rights and appropriate use of the powers of eminent domain.

One proposal, House Bill 2425 and companion Senate Bill 6200, would prohibit the taking of property by government for the purpose of economic development — for example, to build a hotel or shopping mall.

This bill wouldn’t be necessary if not for a Supreme Court case two years ago that upheld government’s authority to condemn private property in the name of economic development. In Kelo v. City of New London, city officials in New London, Conn., sought to condemn 115 privately owned properties for office space, hotels, shops and other commercial enterprises.

After the ruling, McKenna convened an Eminent Domain Task Force to develop legislative recommendations to ensure the power of eminent domain is not abused by government.

“The authority to confiscate homes and businesses is one of the most intimidating powers granted to government by the people,” McKenna said. “There must be limits to that power.”

And the most logical limit is to prohibit a government from turning land acquired by eminent domain over to private developers.

The second proposal, House Bill 2423 and its counterpart Senate Bill 6199, would amend the state’s Community Renewal Law to restrict government’s ability to label entire neighborhoods as blighted in order to sell them to a private developer. The bill also restricts the use of eminent domain for economic development by limiting projects to certain public uses, including roads and utilities. The measure also would bar projects developed for the sole purpose of generating tax revenue.

Since 2000, local governments in this state have applied or tried to apply the Community Renewal Law to take the property of more than 71,000 Washington residents.

Pat Murakami, a southeast Seattle resident, recalled that in 2006, Seattle officials were poised to use the Community Renewal Law on a large section of southeast Seattle for economic redevelopment. “We were told by city officials that they planned to purchase properties from existing property owners and sell them at a discount to private developers,” Murakami said. “This was distressing to our community, particularly our immigrant population, many of whom had left communist countries because their property and ownership rights were not protected.”

Murakami and other activists mobilized the community, and were able to ward off any blight designation for their neighborhood.

“If you’re living in a neighborhood that a city labels as blighted, it usually means that you do not have the financial resources to make improvements or even fight the legal system,” noted state Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma.

The amendment to the Community Renewal Act would limit its use to cases where public health and safety was threatened by a blighted neighborhood.

For the most part, South Sound local governments have been judicious in their use of eminent domain. They should have no problem operating within the parameters established by the two bills.

Eminent domain is a necessary tool for local governments, but one that must be used only as a last resort to achieve a common good. Under no circumstance should it be used as a tool for profiteering by private developers. The two bills support the rights of private property owners without infringing on respectful use of the powers of eminent domain.

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