By Paige St John and Aaron deslatte
Florida lawmakers want to make it harder to seize private property for economic development.
A House committee run by Rep. Marco Rubio is considering amending Florida's definitions of words such as "blighted" and "slum" to make it tougher to condemn private property.
Such a move would go a long way to appease private property rights activists unsettled by this summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expanded government's ability to condemn property for redevelopment.
But it concerns planners who say the power is an important tool to address specific needs.
The high court ruled the city of New London, Conn., could lawfully seize private property from residents who refused to sell and turn it over to private developers.
Rubio's Select Committee to Protect Private Property Rights meets Wednesday. Among its members are Reps. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral; and Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach.
Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday he will allow Rubio to take the lead.
"I trust his judgment on this," Bush said. "He's a really bright lawyer that I think will make some good recommendations."
Bush met Monday with Stan Marshall, founder of the James Madison Institute. The Tallahassee-based conservative think tank has made property rights a major focus since the June court ruling, and will gather its own experts later in the week to come up with recommendations for "safeguarding private property rights in Florida."
It is when government can take land for private use that troubles Bush about the court's 5-4 decision.
"I'm hopeful there will be some changes to the law to make it more restrictive on using eminent domain for private purposes," the governor said.
Wayne Daltry, director of Lee County's Smart Growth initiative, said that many of Lehigh Acres' thousands of unused, small residential lots could be assembled and used to trade for other property the county may need for schools, parks or shopping. Eminent domain would kick in only to prevent a few holdouts from killing the project.
Senate President Tom Lee, who runs a Tampa homebuilding company, said Monday he is open to including the issue in a special session this fall, but wary of the outcome.
"Those are the kinds of issues that the Legislature makes big mistakes when it rushes into," Lee said.
Unlike Connecticut, Florida does not have a law that defines state economic development as a "public use" for which property may be condemned.
But in August, a Volusia County circuit judge cited the Supreme Court decision when he allowed Daytona Beach to force the sale of three vacant parcels for a $120 million oceanfront improvement project.
According to the Florida Redevelopment Association, recent eminent domain cases include efforts by the Fort Myers' Community Redevelopment Agency to aggregate and develop 500 acres of a 1920s subdivision that was never built.
Some in Lee County said that one-size-fits-all rules may not work in Florida.
"It'll make it tougher to assemble and replat lands," said Joe Mazurkiewicz, a Cape Coral development consultant. "It's a political, knee-jerk reaction to conditions that don't exist in Florida."
Cape Coral Economic Development Director Mike Jackson agreed.
"It would be a good thing to remember that growth issues are different all over the state," he said.