Riley, legislators rush to protect property rights

At least three bills would limit use of eminent domain

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

By TAYLOR BRIGHT
Times Montgomery Bureau tbright@htimes.com

MONTGOMERY - For two years, state Rep. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, tried to pass a bill that would limit when governments could take private property through eminent domain.

Both years, the bill failed. Now, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Alabama lawmakers and interest groups are rushing to limit the use of eminent domain.

For the special session of the Legislature that will begin at 6 p.m. today, Gov. Bob Riley and Venable have been writing a bill that would prevent cities, counties and the state government from condemning property to turn it over for commercial, retail, office or residential use.

At least three proposals are circulating in the Legislature that would curb the use of eminent domain, all of them stronger than the one Venable proposed in the Legislature last year.

"If the governor's bill becomes law, Alabamians will have the strongest private property rights in the country," said Jeff Emerson, Riley's spokesman.

Last week, Riley's office had not mentioned including prohibiting eminent domain for "commercial" use in the plan, which drew a quick response from the Alabama Association of Realtors.

"We strongly encourage the Alabama Legislature and the governor to only support a bill with broad protections, not a watered-down version that caters to special interests who would put profits over fundamental American values," Randy McKinney, president of the Alabama Association of Realtors, said in a release issued Saturday.

A bill supported by the Realtors asks for a blanket ban on the condemnation of private property for "commercial" use.

"This legislation should protect our citizens so that, in no way, may land be taken from one private citizen for the profit of another private citizen," McKinney said.

Also, the Alabama Farmers Federation, better known as Alfa, has proposed a bill that would prevent governments from taking land for private use.

"We're going to be as adamant as we can," said Freddie Patterson, director of governmental affairs for Alfa.

The furor over eminent domain came after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the City of New London, Conn., could condemn land for economic development because Connecticut didn't have a law that prevented the use of eminent domain for that purpose.

The ruling doesn't preclude states from passing their own laws to prevent the practice.

Traditionally, cities and counties have used eminent domain not only to clear way for public hospitals and roads, but to attempt to revitalize rundown areas.

Perry Roquemore, executive director of the Alabama League of Municipalities, said the league would favor a law restricting the use of eminent domain as long as it did not interfere with the way cities use eminent domain now for such public uses as roads, easements and parks.

Rarely, if ever, is eminent domain used strictly for commercial purposes in Alabama, Roquemore said.

"We have no heartburn about that issue," he said. "But where it is being used, we don't want to see those laws weakened."

Russell Davis, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Alabama, said the home builders would not oppose a bill restricting the use of eminent domain.

The Home Builders group includes developers, who were expected to oppose the restrictions on eminent domain.

A spokeswoman said the Business Council of Alabama had not taken a position on the issue.

Patterson said he didn't know if the law would pass, although it passed the House last year by a vote of 90 to 1.

"It depends on whether the Alabama Legislature is listening to the people," he said.

2005 The Huntsville Times

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