House approves eminent domain bill after debating blight and crime

? Frustration with gangs, crack dealers and slum lords wasn’t enough to make House members back away Friday from key provisions in a bill designed to protect Kansans from being forced by government to sell their homes and businesses.

The House approved the bill, 117-4, but the overwhelming majority belied members’ mixed feelings about the measure. It would limit the circumstances under which state and local governments could seize property for public use and would require the Legislature to approve each forced sale for a proposed economic development project.

Some House members argued unsuccessfully that the bill needed to be rewritten to make sure that cities’ efforts to eliminate blight and shutter drug houses weren’t hampered. Others worried the bill would stymie economic development.

But supporters of the bill said Kansans worry about state and local governments’ power to force them to sell their property, especially because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year. They said a free society cherishes the right of people to hold property and use it as they see fit.

“If we’re not going to respect people’s property rights, what rights are we going to respect?” asked Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin.

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday. However, House members made amendments during Friday’s debate, and senators will have to consider the changes. If they don’t accept them, negotiators from both chambers would write the final version.

Many House members had hoped to protect property rights by amending the Kansas Constitution. But a proposed amendment failed Thursday, 81-43, with supporters three votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary for adoption.

That had property rights advocates pinning their hopes on the bill. A law is easier to enact than a constitutional change – but also easier to water down in the future.

Property rights advocates have been inspired to push legislation in at least 40 states by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June in which the justices ruled that governments may seize people’s homes and businesses against their will for private economic development.

However, the court also said states are within their rights to pass additional laws restricting condemnations.

“Someday, it may come to your backyard,” said Rep. Frank Miller, R-Independence.

The bill would permit governments to force the sale of property that is unsafe for human occupancy. Some House members wanted to go further, allowing forced sales when property is within a blighted area.

Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, offered an amendment to that effect, arguing that it would ensure that police could shut down drug houses and that cities could improve blighted areas. He said such areas attract gangs.

Rep. Nancy Kirk, D-Topeka, said, “Urban areas desperately need this.”

But the House voted 68-50 against Goico’s amendment. Critics said the amendment was too broad and could have allowed cities and counties to declare an area blighted for other reasons, such as when a few small businesses are within a residential neighborhood or when local officials would like to raze older homes for an upscale development.

“It just broadened things out,” said Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Fredonia. “I don’t think anybody is complaining about (fighting) true blight.”

In all forced property sales, whether for public use or for an economic development project, government would be forced to pay double the property’s appraised value.

Aside from legislatively approved forced sales, the bill allows them for roads, bridges, parks, public buildings and public water works. Also, utilities could obtain property to string lines.

Also, forced sales for economic development projects wouldn’t need legislative approval if those projects already are under way.