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Perdue unveils bills regulating eminent domain

ATLANTA - Local governments would be prohibited from condemning private property to put money in the pockets of developers under legislation unveiled by Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday.

Taking charge of a legislative debate that has spawned dozens of bills, the governor proposed both a constitutional amendment and a law banning eminent domain for economic development purposes.

The two measures also would allow only elected officials to make decisions on condemning private properties for any reason.

"The government's awesome power of eminent domain should be used sparingly and never be abused for private benefit,'' Perdue said during a news conference at the Capitol. "Government must always respect the property rights of its citizens.''

Eminent domain has been shaping up for months to be one of the key issues debated by the General Assembly this winter.

The governor and legislative leaders have vowed to protect private property rights in Georgia since last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Connecticut city that had condemned older houses to make way for a luxury development expected to boost local tax revenues.

Anxious lawmakers have introduced more than three dozen bills addressing eminent domain.

Last week, the Senate approved a 120-day moratorium on the use of eminent domain for private development to allow lawmakers time to sift through the various proposals.

But on Wednesday, legislative Republicans said from this point they would focus on the GOP governor's two proposals.

"This is the ultimate response,'' Perdue said.

Both measures would limit the use of eminent domain to projects that benefit the public, including schools, parks, roads, government buildings and utility lines.

Private property could be condemned for redevelopment purposes only in areas deemed so "blighted'' that they are harming a community.

Democrats, too, appeared ready to support much of the governor's package.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, said some of the provisions in Perdue's bill closely match elements of several bills introduced last month by Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, giving targeted property owners new due-process rights. Jones' district includes a portion of Henry County, the site of a highly publicized ongoing eminent domain battle between the city of Stockbridge and the owner of a flower shop.

"It sounds like the governor is following the leadership of Sen. Jones,'' said Brown. "We welcome his support.''

But Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, said the constitutional amendment may be too much of a good thing. He questioned the necessity of passing both a statute and a change to Georgia's Constitution.

"We know we can enact a sound statute,'' he said. "A constitutional amendment is not necessary. (It) appears to be an election-year gimmick.''

With lawmakers from both parties expressing enthusiasm for clamping down on eminent domain, objections are expected to come mainly from representatives of city and county governments.

Amy Henderson of the Georgia Municipal Association, which represents cities, said there's general support for the idea of limiting decision-making authority over eminent domain to elected members of city councils and county commissions.

But she said other provisions in Perdue's package would make it more difficult for cities to redevelop blighted neighborhoods by requiring them to treat every property separately.

"You would have to go into an area and declare every piece of property blighted,'' she said. "It's going to be harder for cities.''