COLUMBIA — A city charter amendment on the April 2 ballot is intended to reduce the threat of eminent domain and blight associated with enhanced enterprise zones and other state or federal economic development programs.
The Columbia City Council at its Nov. 19 meeting unanimously voted to place the charter amendment on the ballot. It would prevent the city from using eminent domain to acquire property for economic development with the intention of transferring seized property to private entities.
The proposed charter amendment is on the ballot as city Proposition 1. It came about because of a controversy last year over whether to establish one or more EEZs in Columbia. Residents became wary of the EEZ blight designation that targeted a large area of the city, saying that would render areas within an EEZ easy prey for the use of eminent domain.
The proposed amendment also declares that the designation of property as "blighted" to qualify for incentive programs cannot be used to justify the use of eminent domain.
The general hue and cry from the public against EEZs prompted Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe to research eminent domain and blight.
"It seemed to me that other states in the country had restrictions on it," Hoppe said. "The community became interested in it, so I got other parties involved, including the city attorney, to help draft the language for the charter amendment and some input from the city manager."
A case known as Kelo v. the City of New London, Conn., encouraged Hoppe to propose a measure that would prohibit eminent domain abuse in Columbia, she said.
In 2005, New London, Conn., condemned Susette Kelo's home to create room for a redevelopment initiative. The project promised 3,000 new jobs and an additional $1 million in tax revenue.
Kelo, however, sued the city, and her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court's 5-to-4 vote against Kelo and her neighbors sparked a nationwide protest against eminent domain abuse, leading eight state supreme courts and 43 state legislatures to strengthen property rights protections.
The charter amendment is an attempt to assuage the fears of residents who are worried about their property being declared "blighted," then being acquired by city government for redevelopment.
"I think the city realizes that blight worries so many people, which is why it's amending the charter," Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. "The city is beginning to remedy it's relationship with the public by notifying and engaging homeowners' and neighborhood associations."
Columbia resident Dan Cullimore said he supports the charter amendment.
"The use of eminent domain can be problematic," Cullimore said. "As a result, it should be limited and used exclusively for the public good such as building schools, roads and bridges."
"It becomes a matter of concern when we start using eminent domain to provide what some might view as a public good but which benefits a private investor," Cullimore added.
The other problem is the term "blight." Cullimore said it's vague and ill-defined, leaving it open to interpretation.
Cullimore also is a member of Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia. He said members of that group will meet later this week to determine a position on the charter amendment.
Hoppe said that if voters add the provision to the charter it would be immune from future manipulation by the City Council. Only Columbia citizens could overturn it with another vote.
"That's the reason we didn't put it as an ordinance," she said.
REDI Executive Vice President Bernie Andrews and former REDI Chairman Dave Griggs told the Missourian earlier this year that they don't think the amendment would change residents' feelings toward EEZs or increase the chance that EEZs would be proposed again.
"The main issue was the blight issue," Andrews said. "Eminent domain was a concern, and the charter amendment would allay some of those fears, but I don't think the charter amendment would help the cause at all."
Griggs cited Senate Bill 628, which took effect last year, as evidence that the city charter amendment would change little. The Senate bill prohibits a finding of blight in association with enhanced enterprise zones from becoming a path for the use of eminent domain.
"That charter amendment would have no impact because EEZs don’t utilize or encourage anything that has to do with eminent domain," Griggs said. "The only similarity with EEZ is the word blight.
"If a state law doesn't get it done, I don't know how a city one would either."
For now though, Nauser said it would be better to allow the dust to settle, given the angst the EEZ debate created, before proposing the idea again. She would like to see the city take a different approach if the idea to re-establish an EEZ comes up in the future.
"The biggest problem was that it was a top-down approach from the city," Nauser said of last year's effort. "It might work better if it was bottom-up approach from the community or neighborhood rather than the city picking and choosing areas."
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