HARRISBURG, Pa. – Like other states, Pennsylvania is working quickly to enact state legislation redefining eminent domain authority in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer.
The Pa. House passed its bill, H.B. 2054, Nov. 1 by a 172-25 vote. State senators unanimously approved an identical bill, S.B. 881, Dec. 7 after amendments were added that address concerns related to agriculture.
The Senate measure now moves to the House for consideration, which is expected as soon as this week.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Kelo v. City of New London that eminent domain could be used for economic development as a public purpose.
Public use only. The proposed Pa. legislation, also known as the Property Rights Protection Act, would prohibit the use of eminent domain to take private property in order to use it for private commercial uses.
“We cannot allow our local governments to seize established, unblighted property and contend they’re creating bigger tax bases and more jobs to help the local economy,” said bill sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Jeff Piccola, R-15.
Government agencies affected include the state, state departments, political subdivisions and public utilities.
The bill would not change use of eminent domain for “public use” such as roads, bridges, low- or mixed-income housing projects, or schools.
Redevelopment projects could go forward in “legitimately blighted” areas where properties are abandoned, uninhabitable, condemned or constitute nuisance or threat to public safety or health.
Defining blight. Current Pennsylvania law allows an area to be razed if 10 percent or 15 percent of its buildings are considered “blighted.” The proposed law would require a majority of the property in an area to be blighted in order to use eminent domain.
The bill would also more narrowly define “blight,” according to Piccola, to considerations of public health or safety, abandonment and tax delinquency.
He called the current definition “vague and subjective,” particularly when considering “economically or socially undesirable land uses.”
Ag amendments. The Pa. Farm Bureau worked with senate lawmakers to add language protecting farmland. The amendments, which the House must now approve, call for the Agricultural Lands Condemnation Approval Board to determine whether a body can use eminent domain on agricultural properties.
The board would also determine “blight” of an agricultural property and decide whether a condemnation is needed for health or safety reasons, and whether the agency has the authority to invoke eminent domain in the first place.
Basically, the amendment extends protection already provided under state law to eminent domain cases, according to John Bell, governmental affairs counsel with the state Farm Bureau.
He knows of no instance where agricultural land has been condemned as a “blight,” but the Farm Bureau supports a more narrow definition of the term.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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