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Senate passes eminent domain package

ATLANTA - Cities and counties wishing to condemn private property for public projects would face new restrictions under legislation approved by the Senate on Friday.

Senators passed both a constitutional amendment and a separate bill limiting local governments' power of eminent domain. The two measures, introduced on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue, cleared the House earlier this month.

The governor and legislative Republican leaders declared reining in eminent domain a priority last year after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the right of a Connecticut city to condemn existing homes to make way for new development expected to enhance the local tax base.

The issue took on additional impetus when a flower shop owner in Stockbridge and that city landed in court in a condemnation case that drew widespread media attention.

"We're telling cities and counties, 'You can never use eminent domain for economic development,''' said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who presented both measures to his Senate colleagues. "We shouldn't be taking people's property so the cities or counties can get more money.''

The constitutional amendment, subject to voter approval this fall, would prohibit unelected government authorities from using eminent domain without the approval of the affected local government. It also would ban cities and counties from condemning private property for redevelopment projects unless the targeted property is blighted.

It was that blight provision that drew the most heat during Friday's debate.

Sen. Jeff Chapman,

R-Brunswick, who headed a study committee on eminent domain last year, tried to amend the measure to get rid of the blight exception and limit the use of eminent domain to public projects only, such as roads, schools and utility lines.

"Let's restrict the awesome power of eminent domain to those essential needs that government has,'' he said.

Chapman argued that local governments don't need eminent domain to deal with blight. He said they simply can enforce their building and sanitary codes against offensive properties.

But Sen. Dan Weber, R-Dunwoody, said prohibiting cities and counties from ever using eminent domain to revitalize blighted neighborhoods would be too restrictive.

"For every story we hear about eminent domain being improperly used, there are a number of stories to be told when it's been used much to the benefit of the community,'' he said.

After Chapman's proposal failed by just two votes, senators approved the constitutional change 52-2.

The bill - which passed unanimously - includes some of the same provisions as the constitutional

amendment.

But it also would narrow the definition of "blight'' in current law, a change that is being opposed by lobbyists representing city and

county governments.

Under the new definition, local governments could not condemn a piece of property because the surrounding neighborhood was blighted. The property itself would have to be run down.

"It's property by property,'' Balfour said. "We don't look at an area. We're going to look at your house, at your property.''

Both measures now go back to the House, where lawmakers could agree with changes made by the Senate.

It's more likely, however, that the bill and constitutional amendment would land in a House-Senate conference committee, where negotiators would try to work out a compromise.