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Archive for Wednesday, July 20, 2005

States act to counter eminent-domain ruling

July 20, 2005

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— Alarmed by the prospect of local governments seizing homes and turning the property over to developers, lawmakers in at least half the states are rushing to blunt last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding the power of eminent domain.

In Texas and California, legislators have proposed constitutional amendments to bar government from taking private property for economic development. Politicians in Alabama, South Dakota and Virginia likewise hope to curtail government's ability to condemn land.

Even in states like Illinois - one of at least eight that already forbid eminent domain for economic development unless the purpose is to eliminate blight - lawmakers are proposing to make it even tougher to use the procedure.

"People I've never heard from before came out of the woodwork and were just so agitated," said Illinois state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Democrat. "People feel that it's a threat to their personal property, and that has hit a chord."

The Institute for Justice, which represented homeowners in the Connecticut case that was decided by the Supreme Court, said at least 25 states were considering changes to eminent domain laws.

The Constitution says governments cannot take private property for public use without "just compensation." Governments have traditionally used their eminent domain authority to build roads, reservoirs and other public projects. But for decades, the court has been expanding the definition of public use, allowing cities to employ eminent domain to eliminate blight.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that New London, Conn., had the authority to take homes for a private development project. But in its ruling, the court noted that states are free to ban that practice - an invitation lawmakers are accepting in response to a flood of e-mails, phone calls and letters from anxious constituents.

"The Supreme Court's decision told homeowners and business owners everywhere that there's now a big 'Up for Grabs' sign on their front lawn," said Dana Berliner, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.

"Before this, people just didn't realize that they could lose their home or their family's business because some other person would pay more taxes on the same land. People are unbelievably upset."

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