Eminent domain passes first test

ATLANTA - Legislation limiting the ability of local governments to condemn private property sailed through the House Thursday.

Lawmakers took only about an hour to approve a bill introduced on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue restricting the governmental power of eminent domain. Both the bill and an accompanying constitutional amendment drew only one opposing vote.

"We're footsteps away from making history,'' Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Warner Robins, told his House colleagues shortly before the two votes.

"This truly is ... the first meaningful legislation that attempts to restore our precious private property rights. ... I'm excited, as much as old people get excited.''

Perdue, a Republican, and GOP legislative leaders have touted reining in eminent domain as a top priority since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June upheld a Connecticut city's right to condemn homes in an older neighborhood to make way for new private development.

It went well beyond generally accepted "public uses'' for eminent domain, including the building of roads, schools and other public buildings, water and sewer lines and utility lines.

"That decision set off a firestorm across the country,'' said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, the governor's floor leader in the House.

Both the bill and constitutional amendment would prohibit local authorities from condemning private property without the consent of elected officials.

Golick called it an "accountability'' provision.

"All too often, we've seen unelected authorities going forward with projects, letting local (governments) not go on the record with a decision,'' he said.

The bill also gives property owners facing condemnation additional due-process rights, including timely notification of a condemnation proceeding, a right to an independent appraisal of the affected property, a guaranteed 30-day negotiating process and a right to a hearing.

"The property owner is generally on the defensive,'' said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Atlanta, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We wanted to level the playing field.''

But at the heart of both the bill and constitutional amendment is a restriction significantly narrowing the permissible use of eminent domain to "blighted'' neighborhoods.

Local governments no longer would be able to condemn private property merely for the increased tax revenue that would come with new construction. Government officials would have to demonstrate that a proposed condemnation would improve public health or safety by ridding a community of blight.

Further, blight would be defined by "properties'' rather than "areas.'' A local government would not be able to condemn a home that is in decent condition even if it's surrounded by blighted houses.

"If grandma's property is smack in the middle of (a blighted neighborhood) and is not blighted, grandma is safe,'' Golick said. "It's got to happen on a property-by-property determination.''

But representatives of local governments argue that such a narrow definition of blight would make it more difficult to condemn properties that pose a threat to public health and safety.

"It really protects absentee landlords and slumlords,'' said Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.

Henderson said city officials also oppose a provision that would require local governments to return property acquired through eminent domain to its original owner if the property doesn't end up being used for its intended purpose.

"What if you can't find these people?'' she asked.

While no one spoke against the bill during Thursday's House debate, it could run into some opposition in the Senate.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, who chaired a Senate study committee on eminent domain last year, has complained that the language concerning blight in the House bill isn't strong enough to prevent that provision from becoming a loophole.

The Senate passed legislation introduced by Chapman last year that doesn't make an exception for blight. However, the House didn't take up the bill.