Attorney General Rob McKenna and a group of Washington lawmakers want to tighten the state's eminent domain laws to prevent private property from being taken for economic development.
At a news conference last week, McKenna unveiled two reform proposals that he said will protect individual property rights from government abuse of its power.
“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. One of those limits should be on the government’s authority to take your land, only to hand it over to private developers.”
The U.S. Constitution allows government to take someone’s land for public use. The classic examples are to build roads or utility systems. But in recent years some governments have broadened the definition of public use to include redevelopment of blighted areas.
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In a famous case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 called Kelo v. City of New London, the city of New London, Conn., sought to condemn 115 privately owned properties to allow a private developer to build hotels, shops, office space and other new buildings.
The city in that case argued that public use should include economic development that would bring more tax revenue.
The Supreme Court in that case allowed the city to use eminent domain to support private development, but many have criticized Kelo as an unacceptable expansion of government power.
After the Kelo case, an eminent domain task force was created to examine Washington’s laws and offer reforms to protect residents.
Washington’s constitution doesn’t allow government to take property for private use, but the state’s Community Renewal Law does allow eminent domain to be used to eliminate blight.
McKenna said the problem is that the definition of blight is too broad and would allow governments to declare any property “blighted” if it suits their purpose.
Because the definition also applies to the entire area affected by the blighted parcels, governments could condemn nonblighted homes and parcels nearby as long as the community includes some blighted properties.
Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, said that can result in people who are poor being displaced because they lack the money to fight.
“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,” she said. “This bill takes a fair and balanced approach. It will help prevent homelessness. Part of the American dream is to own your own home. I’m pleased this is happening.”
A study by the Washington Policy Center said governments in Washington have tried to use the Community Renewal Law to take property from more than 71,000 people since 2000.
Companion bills House Bill 2423 and Senate Bill 6199 would reform the Community Renewal Law to restrict the ability to label entire neighborhoods blighted in order to sell them to a private developer.
Another package – House Bill 2425 and Senate Bill 6200 – would prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development. The Senate version is scheduled for a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Friday.
The bills are supported by Democrats and Republicans.
Sen. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, said the bills uphold the private property rights that he believes are the foundation of a free society.