Community members voice concerns about misuse of eminent domain

Monday, October 1, 2012 | 5:58 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Those who oppose city use of eminent domain to foster redevelopment of private property worry that a proposed charter amendment would broaden city government's power to do just that.

The proposed charter change, which is subject to both Columbia City Council and voter approval, would allow the city to use eminent domain to acquire land for economic development only if it first designated every parcel of the targeted land blighted. The city could designate a parcel as blighted only if it contained a structure found to be a public nuisance and if the cost of replacing that structure is more than 50 percent of its market value.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe proposed the amendment at the end of the council's Sept. 17 meeting. She said she wanted to address "concern about the use of eminent domain for economic development."

Tracy Greever-Rice, a Columbia resident who opposes the use of eminent domain for economic development, believes the effect of the amendment would be the opposite of Hoppe's intention.

"They are inadvertently setting up a process that will put the people at risk who actually need their protection," Greever-Rice said.

The amendment would give the city too much leeway because the term "public nuisance" is not well defined, Greever-Rice said. The amendment calls for an administrative hearing to determine whether a property is a public nuisance and would give the property owner "a reasonable period of time" to address any nuisance that is found.

Greever-Rice also worried that the city could manipulate the numbers to achieve a blight designation by offering its "lowest" appraisal of the structure and attracting bids "as high as possible" for fixing it up.

"It's going to be really easy to hit that 50 percent mark," Greever-Rice said.

The amendment says that the property's market value would be determined by "the most recent records of the county assessor."

During the recent debate over whether to establish an enhanced enterprise zone in Columbia, opponents also worried that the blight designation necessary to establish the zones would make it too easy for the city to use eminent domain to acquire land and turn it over to private developers.

Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development, Inc., said there is no reason to be concerned about the effect of EEZ blight designations on eminent domain.

"Blight designation for EEZs cannot be used for eminent domain," Brooks said.

Brooks said blight designations established for EEZs are assigned by block, while those that lead to the use of eminent domain must be assigned by parcel.

Brooks said REDI representatives have worked with state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, to change the state's EEZ charter to "break the perceived connection" between eminent domain and EEZs. The legislators added language to state law declaring that blight designations for EEZs cannot be used "to meet the conditions for blight under any other statute of the state," including eminent domain.

Greever-Rice believes eminent domain should be used only for infrastructure development or other public goods, not economic development.

"If the goal is to protect people against eminent domain, the city should decide to never use eminent domain for economic development," Greever-Rice said.

The council will vote on an ordinance proposing the amendment at its Oct. 15 meeting. If the ordinance is passed, the amendment would be subject to popular vote in a special election on April 2.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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