Topeka John Todd doesn't think cities, counties and state agencies should be allowed to force someone to sell property so that it can be turned over to someone else for economic development.
Todd, a Wichita real estate broker and developer, told legislators Tuesday that they need to protect private property rights and that he favors an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to do so.
He found himself pitted against lobbyists who told The Joint Committee on Economic Development that local government officials use their power to force property sales carefully and to promote the public good with large economic development projects.
Some legislators have sought for two years to restrict or ban the taking of private property for economic development. Several, including Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, are promising to pursue the issue next year.
Todd told the committee: "The keys to the economic freedoms we enjoy in this country are individual liberty, private property rights and the free market system."
Cities, counties and state agencies can condemn property, forcing its owners to sell it to them for a certain price, if the owners won't negotiate. Property rights groups contend Kansas law makes it easy for government agencies to force such sales, then turn the property over to other private parties for economic development.
Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, said restricting government power will be a key issue for legislators next year because Kansas has a reputation for being among the worst states for protecting property rights.
"We need to move from that perception to a balanced approach," she said.
In 2003, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed counties' power in a case in which owners of 3.8 acres in Shawnee County objected to the $329,000 price for land that eventually became part of a 400-acre site for a Target Corp. distribution center.
This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in a Connecticut case in which it said states could permit the taking of property for economic development without violating the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment says that private property cannot be taken for public use "without just compensation."
Joining Todd in seeking to restrict governmental power were lobbyists for the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association.
"A lot of Americans think of property as a fundamental right," said Brent Haden, lobbyist for the livestock association. "Should local governments be able to make someone's religion illegal?"
But Randall Allen, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Counties, said counties have used their power for economic development only twice in the past 10 years, with one instance being the Target case. The other, he said, was for the construction of Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County.
"It's very hard to dispute the economic benefit," he said.
Christy Caldwell, lobbyist for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, said Target is paying its workers an average of $11.50 an hour, plus providing health and retirement benefits. She said the distribution center ultimately will employ 1,000 workers.