When a state task force begins examining Missouri's eminent domain system, Steve Hobbs will be helping to look through the microscope.
The Republican state representative from Mexico, Mo., is no newcomer to the issue. While a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision sparked a furor over the government's ability to take private property, Hobbs has been trying for two years to place new restrictions on the state's eminent domain process.
"What we've got is everybody's so desperate to bring in economic development that sometimes we're trampling over rights of private citizens," he said Monday. "That's just not right."
Gov. Matt Blunt appointed the task force on June 28, five days after the Supreme Court upheld the condemnation of 15 properties in New London, Conn. That city is trying to make way for a private development including a marina, new residences and shops aimed at economic revitalization.
In Missouri, legislation to rein in eminent domain has focused on broader issues, including cases where that action is used to address blighted areas and is exercised on behalf of public utilities.
Earlier this year, Hobbs filed a bill that would have changed the definition of a "blighted area," stipulating that in cases where a different use of a property could provide more tax revenue, that fact "shall not be a valid factor in determining blight."
The bill limited the ability of entities to change the use of property acquired by eminent domain and outlined several other requirements in such cases, including when property was taken for use by a utility.
The bill didn't gain any traction, and one reason might be that lawmakers and interest groups were waiting to see how the high court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London.
When the task force begins its work, one issue that will likely come up is a 2003 report by the Castle Coalition a self-described opponent of eminent domain abuse that said Missouri has one of the worst records in the country on the issue. That report cited 13 cases in five years where cities and towns tried to use eminent domain for private condemnation.
One Mid-Missouri city where the possibility of eminent domain has caused a stir is Rolla, where the city is trying to develop property at Highway 72 and Highway 63 using a tax-increment financing system in which future tax revenues can be used to cover development costs.
Mayor Joe Morgan said eminent domain would be used only as a last resort, but he said the city is concerned about possible contamination of the site in question. He said that if the area were developed, tax revenues would increase.
"If an area's truly blighted, then I think a TIF needs to be used," Morgan said. "And like I say, eminent domain hopefully never has to be a part of a TIF, but that is a last resort."
Warren Dean, who owns eight acres on the site, said the threat of the city taking the property has already affected his ability to find renters, adding that he doesn't believe his property is blighted. "It's not even economically blighted, I don't think," he said. "If they'd leave me alone it wouldn't be for long if it is economically blighted."
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