6/03/2006

Eminent domain task force focuses its attention on blight: Columbus (OH) ThisWeek, 5/18/06

By Michael J Maurer

The [Ohio] General Assembly's eminent domain task force changed directions May 11, electing to back off an examination of a constitutional amendment to address controversial takings of private properties for economic development.

Instead, the task force focused on blight and compensation to aggrieved property owners.

One of the key questions the task force decided to examine was whether the state should adopt a law that prohibits governments from taking private property from one landowner to give it to another "solely" for the purpose of economic development.

"The operative word would be 'solely,'" said state Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), task force co-chair along with state Sen. Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland).

Task force members said they thought such a provision would be a good strategic move in light of general public outrage against takings.

"I like where you're going with that, politically," said Gene Krebs, director of Greater Ohio, a land use policy organization that supports farmland preservation and economic development.

However, the task force members also acknowledged that such a provision would be essentially meaningless, since it would be rare that any government entity would ever acknowledge only a single purpose for taking private property.

"Anybody that could be so stupid as to say that doesn't deserve to take it anyway," Seitz said.

One of the other main grounds that justifies the government's involuntary taking of private land is "blight," and the task force decided to focus much of its attention on how blight is defined and used.

The importance of blight to the question of eminent domain was demonstrated by the progression of the task force's organization of its subcommittees: The co-chairs initially suggested four working groups, but almost no members wanted to serve on any subcommittee except the one that dealt with blight.

As the May 11 meeting began, Grendell and Seitz initially agreed to establish four subcommittees to look at takings procedures; compensation issues, such as whether governments should pay "supercompensation" and homeowners' attorneys fees; the definition of "blight," which allows the government to take homes in blighted areas even if the homes are sound; and a fourth subcommittee to look at the necessity for a constitutional amendment.

After objections from the state director of development, Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson, and task force member Richard Tranter, a proponent of strong government takings powers, Grendell and Seitz agreed to drop the constitutional amendment subcommittee.

Once the roll call began, however, it became clear that almost none of the task force members were interested in either the procedures subcommittee or the compensation subcommittee. Instead, nearly everyone wanted to participate in how the state would define blight.

Faced with such lopsided interest, the task force decided to create only two subcommittees, one to examine compensation and procedural issues and a second to examine the meaning of blight. In addition to deciding whether to ban "solely" economic development takings, the blight subcommittee also decided to examine how blight is defined, what percentage of land within a takings area must be blighted and how home-rule governments would be affected by state law on eminent domain.

The task force was established last year shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court case known as "Kelo" that said local governments could, without violating the U.S. Constitution's protections of private property, force an involuntarily sale by private landowners to other private developers.

Proponents of broad takings powers have said the Kelo decision only affirmed decades-old precedents that allow cities to take large swaths of land to clear blight, while proponents of narrow takings powers said the decision marked new territory, allowing private developers to use local governments to their own advantage.

In addition to periodic regional meetings that are being held for public comment outside of Columbus, the task force agreed to meet again May 25 at the Statehouse in Columbus. Its final report, to recommend any changes to state takings law, is due Aug. 1.


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