Perdue proudly inks eminent domain bill

ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation Tuesday that will rein in the authority of cities and counties to condemn private property.

The eminent domain bill was one of the governor's top priorities during the General Assembly session that wrapped up last week at the Capitol.

"This changes the whole presumption from the power of the government to the power of the people,'' Perdue said moments before signing the bill and an accompanying constitutional amendment. "(It) puts the burden of proof on the local governments.''

The bill, which takes effect immediately, limits governmental use of eminent domain to public projects, such as roads, schools and other public buildings and water and sewer lines.

The amendment, which will go before Georgia voters this November, would allow only elected officials to vote on condemnations of private property. The state constitution now gives unelected authorities the power of eminent domain.

Perdue and his Republican allies in the Legislature vowed last summer to enact eminent domain restrictions in Georgia.

They were reacting to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Connecticut city that had condemned homes in an older neighborhood to make way for new private development expected to enhance local tax revenues.

"The hue and cry throughout the country was that the judicial branch got it wrong,'' said Rep. Rich Golick R-Smyrna, Perdue's floor leader in the House. "It fell to the executive and legislative branch to act as the check and balance.''

Democrats supported the bill and constitutional amendment as they made their way through the General Assembly.

But Democratic leaders also took Republicans to task for backing restrictions on eminent domain this year after trying to push a bill through the Legislature last year that critics said would have made it easier for local governments to use eminent domain.

Legislation introduced into the Senate called for allowing local governments to enter into public-private partnerships with building contractors as a way to speed up construction of public projects. But GOP leaders withdrew it after a storm of protest from newspaper columnists and editorial writers.

This year, Republicans and Democrats worked together on crafting limits to eminent domain.

The final version of the governor's bill incorporated many of the elements of a "property owners' bill of rights'' introduced by Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.

"There was so much confusion among landowners as to what their rights were,'' said Jones, who Perdue invited to Tuesday's bill-signing ceremony.

The bill requires local governments to give adequate notice to owners of property targeted for condemnation. It also allows owners of business properties to recover damages from lost sales.

And to prevent cities and counties from land speculation, it requires governments to return condemned properties to their owners if the land isn't used for its intended purpose within five years.

As the bill went through the legislature, representatives of cities and counties expressed concerns that its restrictions would take away their ability to protect their residents from unsafe properties.

But Perdue said the exception for "blighted'' properties included in the measure will give local governments flexibility to enforce health and safety standards.

"We wanted to construct a bill that gave local governments the right to take care of crack houses,'' he said. "But they have to be very specific. ... I think it gives them the prerogatives and parameters they need.''