Charter amendment prevents eminent domain for private economic development

Sunday, November 18, 2012 | 7:11 p.m. CST; updated 12:15 p.m. CST, Monday, November 19, 2012

COLUMBIA — A proposed charter amendment would prohibit the city from exercising eminent domain for economic development with the intention of transferring the property to a private developer.

The measure, proposed by Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, is scheduled for a final vote at the City Council meeting on Monday night. If it passes, the amendment will be subject to voter approval on the April ballot.

The measure comes in response to citizens' worries about the city's potential establishment of an enhanced enterprise zone program.

An EEZ is a state-run program that provides tax incentives to spark expansion of existing businesses or manufacturing companies and the development of new small businesses.

An area must be declared "blighted" to qualify for an EEZ, according to state statute.

Opponents of an EEZ fear that it will put private property at risk of eminent domain. They're worried the blight designation might make it too easy for the city to use eminent domain to acquire land and turn it over to private developers.

"Eminent domain is an apparent likelihood of blight in many cases," Monta Welch, head of A People's Visioning and an EEZ opponent, said. "I don't think they'd be providing for (the amendment) if it wasn't likely."

Welch referenced a recent Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, as an example of her skepticism regarding a proposed EEZ.

In 2005, New London, Conn., condemned Susette Kelo's home to make way for a redevelopment initiative. The initiative promised 3,000 new jobs and an additional $1 million in tax revenue.

Kelo sued, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the governmental practice of acquiring private land and reselling it to private developers, so long as the redevelopment creates a public benefit, such as an increased tax base.

Last March, Hoppe asked city staff about a possible amendment to the city's charter that limits the use of eminent domain for economic development. She suggested the amendment to assuage fears of eminent domain in the manner of Kelo v. City of New London, according to city documents.

An amendment proposed by the council in September attempted to ease the public's worries. The amendment's language, however, created concern that the council was laying out a process for exercising eminent domain — something the council didn't intend, Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said.

"This one takes a more generalized approach," Trapp said. "This offers some protection. If we can help people be less afraid of their government, that's all to the good."

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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Mike Martin November 19, 2012 | 12:09 p.m.

This proposed Charter Amendment is the kind of thing that puts cities on the national news and leadership map.

It shows a City Council not only listening to its citizens, but exercising quintessential American governance: putting a check and balance around an important power -- eminent domain -- that if unchecked can lead to grievous abuses.

As such, it could re-start a national conversation about eminent domain that stalled since Kelo left cities and citizens scratching their heads.

Finally, this Charter amendment could even prove an economic development boost on its own: "Columbia: A city that cares about your property rights. In a post-Kelo world, where better to start your business or buy your house today!"

(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne November 19, 2012 | 12:57 p.m.

Both proponents and opponents of the EEZ should support this proposed amendment. If any Council member votes against putting the amendment on the ballot, that Council member's days on the council should be numbered. If the amendment fails when put to a vote of the people, be afraid.

(Report Comment)

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