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House committee hears both sides of eminent domain debate

March 14, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB1944

JEFFERSON CITY - In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, lawyer Greg Smith said only five percent of eminent domain cases ever go to court.

Bill McLaren, a grain contractor from Pacific, says he can count himself among that group.

In a process that took a "couple of years from start to finish," McLaren said a five mile stretch of highway was built through his farm. He said he didn't know about how the process worked until the tail end of the proceedings, something McLaren said needs to change.

"There needs to a friendlier situation for the property that's being condemned," McLaren said. "We really need to know what our rights are."

McLaren was one of many interested parties who packed themselves into a hearing room to testify on a bill sponsored by Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico and co-sponsored by House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, that would reform the state's eminent domain regulations.

Hobbs introduced a comprehensive bill two weeks ago that would, among other things, notify the public about a project 30 days before a condemning authority can negotiate with a property owner on a price and provides a Bill of Rights for property owners.

"We don't believe it's correct, and think you'll hear witness testify, that someone knocks on their door and says 'I'm here, here's an offer for your property, you have five days to consider it. If you refuse to do that we will take your property and you won't get anything,'" Hobbs said during his testimony.

The bill also bars eminent domain for "solely economic" purposes. "[Public use] is not tax enhancement, it's not solely creating jobs and it's not solely public benefit," Hobbs said.

But Rep. Connie Johnson, D-St. Louis City, took Hobbs to task for what the bill was missing: changes to the definition of "blight."

"We have to have this discussion, we have to have this on the table in order to truly have some type of reform," Johnson said.

Hobbs said the issue of blight was being addressed in a bill from Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Jackson County, that regulates tax increment financing.

"Quite frankly, we shied away from redefining blight in this bill as we introduced it," Hobbs said.

Opponents of the bill, such as Smith, a lawyer with St. Louis-based Husch & Eppenberger, said best way to revitilize areas such as St. Louis is to use eminent domain.

"The city of St. Louis, where I do much of my work, is a great success story," Smith said. "But there's much that remains to be done. And the best way to accomplish that task is to provide private capital and to continue to involve private transfers so that we can provide those essential services to the people who stayed to build our cities."

Smith also chastised a provision in the bill that would award damages to the property owner if the condemning authority halts the eminent domain taking.

"The taxpayers are ultimately paying for this condemnation," Smith said. "It has been the public policy of this state and every other state in the country that in no instance do we allow punitive damages against a public body for the wrongful action of any particular employee of that public body."

More testimony -- and a vote -- on Hobbs' bill will occur after the General Assembly's spring break.