By Julie Carr Smyth and Thomas Ott
A bill preventing cities from seizing unblighted land for economic development through 2006 cleared the state legislature easily Wednesday, as lawmakers responded to public concern that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could make the practice widespread.
The bill, which cleared both the House and Senate unanimously, will go into effect as soon as it is signed by Gov. Bob Taft.
Sponsored by State Sen. Tim Grendell, a Chester Township Republican, the legislation creates a 25-person task force to review Ohio's eminent domain laws in the wake of the high court's Kelo v. New London decision. In that June 2005 ruling, the court said economic development is a viable "public purpose" under eminent domain law, even when unblighted land is being seized for development that ultimately benefits a company.
Eminent domain has traditionally been reserved for such public purposes as roads, schools, military bases, highways or parks.
Lakewood, however, gained national attention two years ago when the city threatened to take land for building upscale housing and shops. The 20-acre project, which would have wiped out 700 apartments and 55 houses, collapsed when voters narrowly barred the use of eminent domain.
Supporters thought the vote would discourage cities, but the strategy has resurfaced. Just last week, South Euclid filed for eminent domain against the owners of four acres needed to build housing and stores at Cedar and Warrensville Center roads.
Meanwhile, Pepper Pike has threatened to sue homeowners who refuse to sell and clear the way for 200 townhouses on Cedar Road.
The Greater Cleveland Partnership, which promotes economic development in the area, opposes sweeping restrictions on the use of eminent domain as an economic growth tool, said Vice President Carol Caruso.
Cities need eminent domain to stop individual property owners from holding up critical redevelopment, said Caruso, who testified on the bill. The power is especially important to older cities with scarce room for construction, she said.
"We want people to understand that it is a last resort, and no one wants to use eminent domain," Caruso said. "We feel we have strong arguments and we will be heard."
Bert Gall, an attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, said the public outrage spawned by the Kelo decision has been so widespread that 36 states have introduced or intend to introduce legislation blocking eminent domain use that benefits private developers.
"If you look at the opinion polls, several pollsters have said they've seen nothing like the numbers in terms of how it's galvanized the public," he said. "It's united people on all parts of the political spectrum - conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats. This decision literally touches home."
Dan Navin, a lobbyist for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said the moratorium and study committee will allow Ohio to take a reasoned look at the issue.
"I think there's a lot of misinformation and almost a frenzy because of what the implications of this lawsuit were, as reported by the press," he said. "It's really stoked a lot of folks who think that this is the most egregious decision issued by the Supreme Court in the last 50 years, and I think some sober analysis of the decision and what's really going on across the state is a good thing."
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