INSIDE WASHINGTON/Don’t tread on me
Congress is working to weaken a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that allows state and local governments to continue seizing private property and transferring it to developers for commercial purposes. In June, the court sided with New London, Conn., in a dispute over a private revitalization project that will force several people to leave their homes.
So far, the House has approved a measure that would prevent local and state governments from using federal highway funds for commercial projects involving a private land owner who was forced off his property. The House and Senate also are considering more comprehensive bills to restrict the use of federal funds for projects where eminent domain was used to seize the property.
Local officials, however, view the Supreme Court decision differently. Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams describes eminent domain power as “indispensable for revitalizing local economies, creating much needed jobs and generating revenue” for cities.
Nevertheless, several state legislatures are planning to re-examine the eminent domain issue. Currently, eight states place significant restrictions on their local governments’ ability to take private property.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says it is imperative for Congress to step in, because the people who are most affected by eminent domain are “minorities and poor people with the least voice in our society.” He acknowledges there are times when eminent domain is justified but adds that people need to be cautious about how it is used. “There might be extraordinary circumstances where your private property can be taken, but only with just compensation and only for public use,” he says. “But to take private property for private use and benefit for economic development goes too far.”
As of late July, Cornyn’s bill attracted the support of 23 Republicans. Across the Capitol, legislation that essentially does the same thing has attracted the support of conservatives such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and liberals, including Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
Bart Peterson, mayor of Indianapolis, Ind., says some members of Congress might not understand the need to use the power of eminent domain in some instances. “The reality is without the potential use of eminent domain, it would be impossible to do any redevelopment in any city or town of any size in America.”
Peterson says the most effective lobbying strategy now for local officials is to meet individually with their representatives and senators to point out the projects in their districts that have come about because of eminent domain. “We are certainly open to change in this area, but not just a wholesale elimination of eminent domain for economic development,” Peterson says.
Michael Bird, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures sees the federal reaction as much ado about nothing. “All these efforts are misguided, reactionary and flying in the face of over 200 years of state constitutional local government sovereignty issues,” he says. “If members of Congress want to make zoning and land use [decisions], let them run for city council, mayor or county commission.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.