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Article published Jul 18, 2005
Alabama joins national backlash to court's eminent domain ruling

Associated Press Writer

Alabama will join a growing statehouse backlash over the U.S. Supreme Court's eminent domain decision when the Legislature convenes in special session Tuesday.

In addition to offering a state General Fund budget, Gov. Bob Riley's office announced Monday that he is preparing a bill that would prohibit city and county governments from using eminent domain to take property for commercial, retail, office or residential development.

The bill would still allow property to be taken for traditional eminent domain projects, such as public roads and schools.

Riley said he has "a severe problem" with the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling last month on the issue. The ruling said cities have broad powers to condemn people's homes through eminent domain to make way for shopping centers or other private development to generate tax money for the cities.

The ruling said states could enact stricter rules. But it came after most state legislatures, including Alabama's, had finished their regular sessions. Those that were still in session or that had special sessions have been quick to react. And others are making plans for their next session.

Jeff Emerson, Riley's communications director, said there is national trend developing, but "if this bill becomes law, Alabama citizens would have the strongest private property rights in the nation."

Some examples of what's happening elsewhere:

-In Delaware, the House and Senate voted unanimously June 30 to impose restrictions on eminent domain.

-In Texas, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of legislation to restrict eminent domain and are trying to agree on a bill.

-In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue has called it a "kitchen table issue," and he has joined top legislative leaders in promising to take action in the next session of the Legislature.

-In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt created a task force to make recommendations for the next session of the Legislature.

Two states - Utah and Nevada - passed bills earlier in the year while the Supreme Court case was pending.

Some worry that the backlash will have painful consequences.

Charles Ball, Gadsden's city planner, said eminent domain is critical for older cities like his that don't have lots of open land for new development.

"We do not have the luxury of having thousands of acres available for new development like Hoover, Trussville and Gulf Shores. We have to recycle what we have," he said.

The Alabama League of Municipalities, the lobbying organization for Alabama cities, has no objections to Riley's proposal as long as it doesn't go beyond the issues in the Supreme Court's ruling, Executive Director Perry Roquemore said Monday.

Eminent domain law allows governments to acquire private land for public use from people who don't want to sell their property, but the owners must receive "just compensation."

The debate over eminent domain in Alabama is not new. It just didn't get much attention until the Supreme Court's ruling June 23 against homeowners in New London, Conn.

In the regular session of the Alabama Legislature in the spring, Rep. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, and Sen. Jack Biddle, R-Gardendale, tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill preventing local governments from using eminent domain to obtain private property and turn it over to developers for retail development.

"Nobody cared before. Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon," Biddle said Monday.

Venable was working with Riley on Monday to complete a final draft of a bill for the special session. He said it appears to have plenty of support to pass.

Some lobbying groups are pushing the Legislature to respond quickly to the Supreme Court's decision.

"The right to own property is such a fundamental principle of our democracy that it is un-American to allow or support this practice," said Randy McKinney of Gulf Shores, president of the Alabama Association of Realtors.

Passing such legislation is not always easy.

Larry Morandi, a land use expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Minnesota had eminent domain bills introduced in its Legislature after the Supreme Court's ruling, and none passed.

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