Weighing private property rights against the public interests is a difficult balance that members of the Kansas Legislature are struggling to find.
Many states are considering eminent domain action this year in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that allowed local governments to seize homes and businesses against the owners' will to facilitate private economic development projects. The court, however, added that states are within their rights to set additional limits on the use of eminent domain.
A constitutional amendment that failed to pass the Kansas House this week would have banned any property from being taken through eminent domain for any private commercial enterprise, economic development or any private use unless the property owner was willing to sell. Eminent domain could only have been used to acquire property for public uses such as parks and roads. While most legislators and most Kansans place a high priority on private property rights, the constitutional amendment may be too rigid to accommodate some popular and worthy projects.
An alternative being considered in the Legislature is a bill that would allow the use of eminent domain for public projects but require legislative approval of every instance in which government tried to force a property sale for an economic development project. Such a measure would provide some protection for private property, but it seems questionable to place this authority in the Legislature, which may not adequately understand the local dynamics of many projects.
The tension on this issue is between protecting private property and giving cities and counties the ability to pursue economic development. Although private property rights are a cornerstone of democracy, it's hard to argue that certain projects, including the Target Corp. distribution center south of Topeka and the Kansas Speedway complex in Wyandotte County, haven't provided significant economic benefits in those communities.
It's unfortunate that some unwilling owners were forced to sell their property for the speedway project, but the track and the associated retail development now are the envy of the region and will have long-term economic benefits for the entire area. Does the public interest trump the desires of the private property owners who didn't want to sell their property? Is taking land for a park or a road inherently more justifiable than taking property for a project that will benefit the local economy?
Private property rights are important, but the public interest occasionally could take precedence. A constitutional amendment probably is too rigid to serve the best interests of Kansas, but some sort of statutory restrictions may be justified. As noted above, it's a difficult line to draw, and legislators are right to approach the issue of eminent domain with some caution and careful consideration.