Glut of bills weighing down eminent domain debate

ATLANTA - The General Assembly's strategy to protect private property rights in Georgia this year started in an orderly manner.

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut city's right to condemn a longtime resident's home to make way for private development, a Senate study committee agreed to push legislation limiting the power of eminent domain.

The bill the panel chose already had passed the Senate last winter, several months before the justices ruled.

Not to be left out, several House members pre-filed eminent domain bills just prior to the beginning of the 2006 session three weeks ago.

But when the gavel came down, the floodgates opened. Now, more than three dozen bills seeking to rein in eminent domain in various ways and to various extents are pending in the House and Senate.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, chairman of the study committee and the Senate bill's sponsor, isn't surprised considering the political gain to be had by championing private property rights.

"It's an election year,'' he said.

Chapman appears to be taking the legislative glut in stride. But supporters of a tough crackdown on eminent domain are becoming worried that the sheer number of approaches all those bills represent might result in a watered-down measure.

"Property owners may get hoodwinked into thinking action is getting taken, and something else is going to get slipped under the table,'' said Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates market-based solutions. "Our leaders need to stick with the program, with what they promised us.''

Three measures pushed

Senate Republican leaders say they can do just that with a three-pronged strategy aimed at allowing eminent domain only for projects with a public purpose, such as roads, schools or water and sewer lines.

At the same time they're working to convince their House counterparts to approve Chapman's bill, they also are pursuing a constitutional amendment and a 120-day moratorium prohibiting local governments in Georgia from pursuing eminent domain for economic development purposes.

The three measures have different functions. Chapman's bill would put strong language into Georgia law, a constitutional amendment would give voters a chance to weigh in on the issue this fall and a moratorium would buy the legislature some time.

GOP leaders say they're particularly concerned with keeping the city of Stockbridge from condemning a local flower shop as part of a downtown redevelopment project before the legislature can enact a tough law. That highly publicized case has become a poster child for the need to reform state laws governing eminent domain.

"Georgia does not need to take private land for private purposes, period,'' Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said. "It's a bedrock belief ... like mom and apple pie.''

Some rank-and-file Republicans want to go further than their leaders in restricting eminent domain. Examples include a House bill to allow the use of eminent domain only for transportation improvements and utility lines and a Senate measure to make it more difficult to condemn private property to make way for new schools.

On the other hand, Dodd said she is worried that some of the bills insert loopholes into the law that would render them less restrictive than the Senate leadership measures.

Democratic package

Democrats, too, have weighed in with a four-bill Senate package introduced last week. Their emphasis is on spelling out the rights of property owners targeted for condemnation, including due process and "just and fair compensation.''

Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, accused Republicans of confusing the issue with bills containing "everything from A to Z. ... I want to narrow the discussion to what's important to property owners.''

For his part, Chapman is hoping to convince House GOP leaders to stick with his bill and, toward that end, has sent House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Atlanta, a letter pleading

his case.

"I have put a lot of hours into the legislation I've introduced,'' Chapman said last week. "I want to stay

focused on the abuses of

eminent domain.''

Advocates for Georgia's city and county governments say they can live with some restrictions on their right to condemn private property.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has recommended limiting the power of eminent domain to elected officials - not members of appointed authorities or boards - and prohibiting local governments from condemning a home or business that is in good condition but is surrounded by a blighted neighborhood.

But Lamar Norton, director of government relations for the Georgia Municipal Association, said cities oppose a "blanket'' prohibition of eminent domain for economic development purposes.

"That's very overreaching,'' he said. "There's some good growth that will happen and needs to happen.''

Jim Grubiak, legislative director for the ACCG, said last year's court ruling has not been followed by a rush to exercise eminent domain that would justify a blanket prohibition.

"There's no groundswell of county officials saying, 'We're going to go out and condemn property,' '' he said. "(But) we need to recognize that there are going to be times when (eminent domain) is the appropriate way to go.''