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MO Senate passes eminent domain limits

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – Missouri State Senators Tuesday passed legislation that would restrict the use of eminent domain to take private property.

The measure would ban seizures of buildings and land "solely" to create jobs or broaden the tax base except when the property is first declared "blighted."

Critics called the restriction too loose to be meaningful. Some had sought to bar the use of eminent domain on projects "predominantly" for economic development.

The provision cuts to the heart of a summer U.S Supreme Court ruling that allowed a Connecticut city to take private property through eminent domain simply for the economic benefits of a redevelopment project, without first declaring the properties were blighted.

Sen. Chris Koster, who spent the past weekend meeting with property rights groups, municipal leaders, utilities and business groups crafting a comprise, said lawmakers needed to address past problems and abuses without stymieing future economic growth. In recent years, many of the problems that have emerged from projects relying on eminent domain in Missouri have involved municipal governments stretching the definition of blight to cover neighborhoods and properties with few if any problems.

But the bill endorsed by the Senate on Tuesday doesn't change the definition of what qualifies as blighted areas. Instead, it bans declaring farmland blighted and allows property owners to challenge a blight designation in court.

It also would require each parcel in an area slotted for redevelopment be independently evaluated for "blight," but if the entire area is "predominantly blighted," all the land could be taken through eminent domain regardless of whether each individual property is actually blighted.

Sen. Tim Green said the proposed changes would do little to correct the past problems. "We're just making a very nice facade for the public and not going after the heart of the matter," said Green (D-St. Louis).

Koster (R-Harrisonville) acknowledged to critics that the bill wasn't perfect, but said it was a strong step forward in dealing with an issue that hasn't been addressed in more than 60 years. "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good," he said.

Sen. Jason Crowell, who had sought a tougher standard that would have banned using eminent domain "predominantly" for economic development, said the entire debate about dealing with eminent domain hinged on deciding what types of projects should be able to seize property. He says the lower standard "is worthless" because "it doesn't mean anything."

Gov. Matt Blunt has called for an overhaul of the state's eminent domain laws and appointed a special task force to study the issue and make recommendations on changes that need to be made.

Deciding when to allow eminent domain and how to compensate property owners has required a delicate balance among property rights groups, the business lobby and utilities. The fragile agreement brokered during closed-door sessions over the weekend was a constant concern throughout the debate Tuesday, as senators attempted to tailor amendments that wouldn't upset the balance.

Beside determining what types of projects should be able to use eminent domain, the most controversial provision of the bill has been a bonus payment to reward people based upon how long they've owned the land being taken under eminent domain. The Senate deleted a House-passed formula that would have given property owners up to an extra 1% for each year their families owned the properties. Instead, the Senate version would provide an extra 25% to everyone. People losing homes or business that have been in their families for at least 50 years would get a 50% bonus.

Sen. Chuck Gross (R-St. Charles) said lawmakers had decided to "continue to authorize the taking of private property for private use, and the infringement of that right is going to carry with it a 25-50% premium."

The House already has approved its own eminent domain bill and would need to accept the Senate's version or meet in a conference committee to negotiate.

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