COLUMBIA — On April 3, voters will have their say on the city's eminent domain power.
The Columbia City Council unanimously approved a charter amendment Monday night that prevents the city from exercising eminent domain for economic development with the intention of transferring the property to private entities.
The amendment stemmed from public discussion regarding a proposed enhanced enterprise zone, or EEZ, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said during the meeting.
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. To apply to the state for the creation of an EEZ, the proposed area must be declared "blighted or possessing conditions that lead to blight."
The blight designation worried opponents of an EEZ. They feared areas of the city declared blighted might be at a greater risk of eminent domain. Eminent domain is the power vested in governments to take, with "just compensation," private property for public use.
"Blight greases the wheels, as they say, for eminent domain," Monta Welch, head of A People's Visioning and an EEZ opponent, said before the meeting.
In response to the public dissatisfaction, Hoppe asked city staff about a possible amendment to the city's charter that limits the use of eminent domain for economic development, according to city documents. She cited the recent Supreme Court case on eminent domain, Kelo v. New London, as reason to further articulate the city's power.
She presented a charter amendment in September that limited the city's right to exercise eminent domain to acquire property unless the property was previously declared blighted.
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 in an interview.
"We removed it to readdress the language," Fifth Ward councilwoman Helen Anthony said at the meeting. "Now it's more narrowly construed."
Trapp said he thought the amendment provided no substantive change to the dialogue on EEZ.
"It's a law about a feeling," Trapp said. "Nobody likes (eminent domain) on the left, nobody likes it on the right. Eminent domain tramples individual rights except in its most narrow use."
Trapp referred to the language added to the state's EEZ charter last spring which specifies that blight designations for EEZs cannot be used "to meet the conditions for blight under any other statute of the state," including eminent domain.
Mike Brooks, director of Regional Economic Development Inc., the public-private partnership pushing for an EEZ, said that everything he’s ascertained from the city’s legal counsel indicates no connection between the blight designation required for EEZ and the blight designation used for eminent domain.
“The only thing they have in common is the word ‘blight,’” Brooks said.
Brooks said an EEZ identifies blight in terms of census blocks. Eminent domain identifies blight in a more specific, parcel-by-parcel manner.
Mary Hussmann, an organizer for Grass Roots Organizers and an EEZ opponent, said she was pleased with the council's passage of the amendment but thinks of it as a first step.
"It won't help us to vote in April if the proposed EEZ is voted on before then," Hussmann said.
An EEZ Advisory Board, appointed in May by Mayor Bob McDavid, is in the process of defining boundaries for an EEZ. The board has proposed two zones, but no definite boundaries have been identified, Brooks said.
The public outcry over the blight designation by groups such as Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia prompted the council to rescind the resolution in May and create the advisory board.
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