Task force calls for eminent domain amendment

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SALEM, Ohio – Ohio’s eminent domain task force wants the state to add a constitutional amendment to deal with private land takings.
And in that amendment, it should say taking private property solely for economic development – building condos, a Wal-Mart, office spaces – is against the rules.
In its report to the legislature filed Aug. 1, the task force suggested an amendment is necessary to give cities the same property-taking powers as the state, and to further define their legal powers when it comes to eminent domain.
Call to action. State Rep. Tim Grendell of Geauga County introduced legislation a year ago that called for a hold on eminent domain takings until Dec. 31, 2006, and the formation of a task force to study the topic.
Since February, the task force has held public listening sessions and boiled the input down to give the legislature its best recommendations on how to handle the issue in Ohio.
After weeks of deliberation, the task force voted 12-11 the constitution needs a clearer definition of blight and stricter rules so eminent domain takings are consistent from Ashtabula to Zanesville.
In line. Those suggestions are in line with the Ohio Supreme Court’s July 26 decision in favor of landowners in the cases City of Norwood v. Horney and City of Norwood v. Gamble, according to Grendell’s legislative aide Beth Vanderkooi.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court chastised the city of Norwood, Ohio, for having uneven definitions of blight, and was blunt in ruling taking property for economic development was unconstitutional, Vanderkooi said.
Blight defined. The task force said members understand the government’s need to protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens by declaring homes or neighborhoods blighted, but suggested the state, counties and cities not use the blight definition as a crutch.
Even if the property taken is converted to another private use, the blight needs to be clearly defined by law, the task force agreed unanimously.
And that definition needs to be the same, no matter where in the state it’s applied.
“The citizens and our highest state court are appalled at how the planning process can be manipulated on behalf of the few at the expense of the many,” wrote Gene Krebs, state director of the Greater Ohio campaign, in his closing comments.
The task force recommended farmland be guarded from the blight standard, unless there are specific environmental or public health hazards that go beyond accepted agricultural practices.
Details. The task force is also calling for public agencies to allow public input before they exercise property seizure powers; for governmental agencies to disclose full appraisal values of property when making offers on the land; and to increase relocation and moving expenses and compensate for loss of business and goodwill in certain takings.
The task force said landowners should not receive compensation for emotional stress when their property is taken, even if it’s sentimental value to a family, such as in a farm situation.
The proposal does, however, include the idea that a landowner has the right to repurchase unused property seized by the government.
Attorney fees. The report also says landowners have the right to make government agencies pay attorney fees if they lowball an appraisal by more than 25 percent.
“The incentive to try to steal property from a landowner goes down as the penalty for doing so goes up,” wrote Bruce Ingram, a Columbus attorney on the task force, in his closing comments.
“All Ohio landowners, not just a select few, deserve this protection.”
Opposition. The Ohio Department of Development, represented by Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson on the task force, opposed the amendment recommendation.
The department and other dissenting votes say a law would be redundant since the Ohio Supreme Court has already reviewed and ruled on eminent domain cases. Lower courts look to that precedent in making decisions, the department says.
The department also said it has seen no clear and convincing evidence that there is a pattern of eminent domain abuse in Ohio.
More to come. It’s too late to push for any ballot vote this November, Vanderkooi said
Sen. Grendell and other legislators plan to step back, collect more input and then move the task force’s proposal ahead in the legislature this fall, she said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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