Two areas of public policy and individual rights are colliding in the West Virginia Legislature. The result will affect how cities fight crime and how secure private citizens feel in owning their property.
The House of Delegates has approved HB4048, which clarifies that eminent domain can not be used to seize private property for retail, office, commercial, industrial and residential development. It has moved along to the Senate, which has referred the bill to its Economic Development Committee.
The concern among several cities is that the bill does not include an exemption for local governments to declare an area blighted or a slum and then use their eminent domain powers to acquire private property to be used for private development.
"If we don't have the ability to use eminent domain in slums and blighted areas, then we have no vehicle to protect citizens from the deterioration of properties that are unsafe, overgrown and a health hazard," said Dorothy Turner-Lacy, a community development specialist for the city of Huntington.
Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, has introduced his own bill that allows the use of eminent domain to clear slums and blighted areas.
Some lawmakers contend that the state's definitions of a slum and blighted area are too broad. Exempting them from the limitations would leave a loophole that governments could use to take someone's home for economic development purposes, they say.
Huntington is in the early stages of a redevelopment plan for a blighted area of Artisan Avenue. The area is known as a drug market because of the rundown condition of many properties. To carry out its plan, the city must acquire 31 vacant lots or homes and replace them with new homes. One stubborn property owner could ruin the plan.
The city needs an aggressive program to clear blight. Eminent domain should be used only as a last resort and only to clear truly blighted areas.
Lawmakers will have to craft a definition of the word "blight" that does two things. One allows cities to clear areas favored by drug dealers. The other prevents government from abusing its power of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another.
This truly is an area where the Legislature had better tread carefully.
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