By Bryan Chambers
The eminent-domain bill passed by the [West Virginia] state Senate on Thursday would leave some room for urban renewal efforts such as the proposed Artisan Avenue project in Huntington, but it could make them more difficult.
The state Senate unanimously passed the measure (HB4048), designed to prohibit cities from using their eminent domain powers to take private property for economic development purposes. The bill allows cities to continue using eminent domain in slums and blighted areas, but it also gives property owners an appeal process.
"We've accomplished two major objectives," said Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock. "We continue to give urban renewal authorities the ability to declare areas as slums and blighted, which is a good way to eradicate problems such as drug dealers or deteriorating housing. At the same time, we've given protections to the property owner above and beyond what is in current law."
Huntington officials have followed the bill closely because it could halt a plan to redevelop a four-block stretch of Artisan Avenue that was declared a slum and blighted area last year.
The city plans to purchase 31 vacant, dilapidated homes and lots on Artisan between Hal Greer Boulevard and 20th Street and use the property to build 17 new affordable homes and duplexes. The city does not plan to purchase any occupied homes.
City officials say they do not want to use eminent domain to take the property, but need it as a tool to bring property owners to the bargaining table.
Eminent domain has been a hot-button issue for states since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that cities could use eminent domain to take private property and give it to private developers.
The ruling stems from a case in which the city of New London, Conn., acquired property from several unwilling homeowners so a developer could build a hotel, office complexes and marina.
Since then, more than 40 states have revisited their eminent domain laws.
According to the bill, property owners would have to prove to the urban renewal authority proposing the condemnation that their property is not a slum or blighted and should not be condemned.
If the property owner succeeds, the urban renewal authority would be responsible for showing through nine detailed steps why the condemnation of the property is essential to the redevelopment project it is proposing.
If the property owner does not succeed, they would be able to appeal the urban renewal authority's decision in court, Bowman said.
"They would be able to appeal not only the taking of their land, but also the value of the land that's been established by the city," he said. "Property owners have never had this right in the past in West Virginia."
While several senators applauded the amended version of the bill, some still had concerns.
"It does appear that the property owner would have to appeal to the same agency that wants to condemn their property in the first place," Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, said.
"It seems to me like we're making the property owner whose property has been condemned prove that it is not," said Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph. "Why haven't we placed the burden of proof on the condemning authority? That can be a very expensive process for the property owner."
The House passed the bill during the first month of the legislative session. The Senate's amended version must be approved by the House again before it can go to Gov. Joe Manchin for his signature.