9/23/2005

Legislative panel seeks proposals to limit eminent domain powers: Orlando (FL) Sentinel, 9/19/05

By Ludmilla Lelis

Backlash is building over the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave governments a green light to seize private homes and businesses to make way for more-lucrative private development.

Government officials who think the ruling gave them too much power are pushing political reforms to rein in local cities or counties that might try to start a land grab.

During the past few weeks, a few local governments such as Palm Bay and Polk County have voted to limit the use of condemnation or to support private-property rights.

Now the Florida Legislature is wading into the issue. On Wednesday a newly created legislative committee began work to develop recommendations to give property owners more protection under state law.

The groundswell of opposition to expanding the use of eminent domain offers hope to some property owners such as Daytona Beach resident Peter Colt, who fears his beachside neighborhood could be targeted for a future condemnation.

"Nothing has stirred people as much as this decision on private-property rights," Colt said. "Now the pressure is on to do something about it."

In June, a sharply divided Supreme Court approved a plan that forces a group of Connecticut homeowners to sell their houses for a future business development, because that new development promises more jobs and higher tax revenue.

Though decades of legal decisions had been building toward that ruling, it was the first time many people became aware that governments could use the power of eminent domain to go beyond the traditional use: condemning land for roads, schools or other public needs.

"The fact that land could be taken at all, and given to another private entity, is just very troubling," said Scottie Butler, general counsel for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

However, the justices made it clear that their June 23 ruling does not prevent any local limits on eminent domain.

"After the decision, there was a wave of outrage that swept the country," said Dana Berliner, senior attorney for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, the nonprofit law firm that supported the Connecticut landowners in the Supreme Court case. "What the court said was that you, the landowner, have no protection under the federal Constitution, and your only hope is in your state legislatures."

Several states already have responded, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. As many as 30 state legislatures have passed or are considering changes to their eminent-domain laws.

In Florida, the new House Select Committee to Protect Private Property Rights plans to study the issue and come up with recommendations by January so that a potential bill or constitutional amendment could be ready for next year's legislative session.

"You'll find it is a complex issue ... in addition to being a passionate political issue," said the committee chairman, Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Miami.

The select bipartisan committee appears universally opposed to the Supreme Court decision. Although that high-court opinion has no direct impact on Florida law, the concern is about how judges may interpret the state law.

Several members suggested tightening the state law regarding what kind of private property can be taken and the reasons a government could condemn land.

"Economic development cannot be the sole purpose for the taking of property," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors.

Unlike Connecticut, Florida law doesn't specifically allow cities and counties to condemn private land for economic development. Local officials can condemn land for redevelopment if that land is "blighted." The state law lists 14 factors for a blight designation, from high crime rates to lagging property values.

"You could drive a truck through our blight regulations, it's that broad," said Carol Saviak, executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights, based in Orlando. "It's just prime for abuse."

Once a city declares an area blighted, that is enough to condemn land, which is what happened to three businesses on the Daytona Beach Boardwalk.

Quoting heavily from the Supreme Court decision, a circuit judge in Daytona Beach ruled last month that a 24-year-old blight designation is enough to empower the city to force the sale of those properties.

Daytona officials want to replace the outdated arcades with a $120 million condominium and retail development.

With this kind of power available to local governments, a few cities have taken the lead in setting their own limits on eminent domain.

"This is a basic fundamental right from our founding fathers," Palm Bay Deputy Mayor Andy Anderson said. "You've got to protect it in your own back yard."

All of this potential reform comes too late for the Boardwalk businesses, which are destined to be bulldozed.

"There's nothing in place to protect a small business," said Darrell Hunter, whose 50-year business run on the Boardwalk ends next month. "When the government can just kick you out, why would you bother spending your life building a business?

"Where is the American dream?"


Orlando Sentinel: www.sun-sentinel.com