Saturday, October 15, 2005

Legislators aim to put limits on uses of eminent domain

PG coverage of pending bills Headline: Legislators aim to put limits on uses of eminent domain

I've sounded off on eminent domain.

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Legislators aim to put limits on uses of eminent domain

Friday, October 14, 2005
By Tracie Mauriello, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- Susette Kelo lives 304 miles from the Pennsylvania Capitol. But her failed legal battle to save her Connecticut home from government seizure is inspiring legislation to preserve property owners' rights in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

Ms. Kelo's pink cottage in New London was doomed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that government can force owners to sell their property to make way for private businesses that generate more taxes.

Lawmakers want to ensure Pennsylvanians' properties are protected from a similar fate.

"The idea that one taxpayer's property can be taken by government and turned over to another private person for non-governmental purposes is outrageous," said state Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, R-Dauphin.

He is sponsoring legislation to restrict municipalities' rights to take property by eminent domain. Similar legislation by Rep. Thomas Yewcic, D-Cambria, is in committee.

At least 35 other states are considering similar bills.

Stumping for Mr. Piccola's bill yesterday were Sens. John C. Rafferty Jr., R-Montgomery, and Patricia H. Vance, R-Cumberland; and Rep. Glen R. Grell, R-Cumberland, who is introducing identical legislation in the House.

Under their plan, municipalities could seize property under certain circumstances -- for example, to remove blighted structures that are beyond repair and unfit for habitation or use. Municipalities also could take unoccupied properties that have been tax delinquent for more than two years, have been abandoned by their owners or have liens totaling more than 150 percent of fair market value. Municipalities could condemn an entire area if more than half of the properties within it are eligible for seizure.

"The use of eminent domain to destroy an established and unblighted neighborhood of homes and businesses to make way for shopping malls, office complexes or other private development is unfair and contrary to good public policy," Mr. Piccola said.

That will happen unless state legislatures nationwide prevent it, said Dana Berliner, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented Ms. Kelo before the Supreme Court.

"Businesses produce more taxes than homes, and [the Supreme Court justices] said that's a good enough reason to take them," Miss Berliner said.

"The American dream is to work hard and to buy a home," she said. "Yet, the Supreme Court said none of that means anything if a richer person can produce more taxes and more jobs on the exact same land."

The court, in its 5-4 New London ruling, said it didn't want to "second-guess" municipalities' decisions. It left open the possibility that states could create their own laws.

The court held that New London, which had been designated a distressed municipality, could acquire the property of Ms. Kelo and eight other residents and use the land for an elaborate development surrounding a $300 million Pfizer pharmaceutical company research facility.

The ruling didn't change anything for Pennsylvania, which has been taking private land for commercial use since the late 1960s, said Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney specializing in eminent domain.

Eminent domain is supposed to be used for public works projects that benefit entire communities, like highways, airports or bridges, he said.

Others, though, say it should be available more broadly.

The Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities has opposed previous attempts to limit eminent domain, including Mr. Yewcic's, because they would have "completely stopped the use of eminent domain for redevelopment," said Amy Sturges, the group's director of governmental affairs. The league is reviewing Mr. Piccola's proposal.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy has said that eminent domain is an important tool.

The city used the threat of eminent domain to persuade Pittsburgh Wool Co. to make way for an expansion of H.J. Heinz Co. facilities, which were later purchased by Del Monte Food Co.

In an ongoing court battle, the city is seeking to use eminent domain to remove the Garden Theatre, an adult movie house.

Mr. Georgiades is representing the theater owner in that case. He argues that it is unconstitutional for the Urban Redevelopment Authority to force his client, George Androtsakis of New York City, to make way for a $45 million arts district at North Avenue and Federal Street. Other businesses in the area already have been forced to sell, but the theater is the lone holdout.

(Tracie Mauriello can be reached at or 717-787-2141.)