Kansas City, Mo. A new state law on eminent domain has complicated the recovery process for Kansas towns hit by disasters, like the May tornado that his Greensburg and the summer flooding that hit Coffeyille and Osawatomie.
The new law, which went into effect in July, says local governments can no longer seize land and use it for private development without permission from the Kansas Legislature. Lawmakers wanted to prohibit instances in which private property was seized to build a commercial enterprise.
But the law applies to private housing as well, which is what makes it a problem for flooded towns because some residents walked away from their properties after the July floods and May tornadoes. With no guarantee that legislators will approve a seizure, communities could be left with prime residential property that stays abandoned. Towns may not get back the housing they need.
"We're stuck," said Bret Glendening, city manager of Osawatomie, where the city hasn't yet found the owners of about 15 properties. "If people walk away, the city can't ensure that property is useful again. ... The goal isn't to take someone's property. We need to assure that our community is able to grow and sustain itself."
Glendening was among the officials who told lawmakers in Topeka recently that restoring lost housing was the No. 1 priority in their storm-damaged towns. He and others hope the state can relax the law for towns hit by natural disasters.
Cities can clear debris from private property without permission of the owner, but they cannot demolish abandoned property until they have purchased it or declared the property unsafe and completed the condemnation process.
In Coffeyville, where flooding led to a leak at an oil refinery, the town lost about 10 percent of its housing. "We don't have any idea of how many people will walk away at this point," City Manager Jeff Morris said.
In Greensburg, about 90 percent of the debris had been cleared by mid-August, but much of the remaining 10 percent is on abandoned property.
"All we really want to do is clear the lots and make it where they can be built on, where we can turn around the lots," Glendening said. "This isn't an attempt to rewrite the eminent domain law and chip away at the law that was implemented."