Senate will consider tighter eminent domain restrictions

Friday, April 28, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — After Sara Barwinski sat through a committee hearing last month on a bill to change Missouri’s eminent domain regulations, she said she overheard a lobbyist and a developer talking about the progress of legislation.

Barwinski, who represents a group of people displaced by construction of the new runway at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, said the two assured each other that a House bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, would do little to shift the status quo.

The Senate bill, however, would be another story.

“This bill takes you a little forward,” said Barwinski during her testimony Tuesday to a Senate Pensions, Veterans’ Affairs and General Laws Committee. “You can take it a lot forward.”

After groups who want to restrict the use of eminent domain regulations lambasted what they felt was a weak bill from the Missouri House, the Senate committee sent a bill to the Missouri Senate with several alterations the groups found favorable.

“There was some very persuasive testimony of folks who had land taken,” said Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

The Missouri Farm Bureau, a group that was sharply critical of the eminent domain bill passed out of the House, reacted positively to the committee’s changes, especially a ban on eminent domain for “predominantly” economic development purposes.

Leslie Holloway, a lobbyist for the Farm Bureau, said banning eminent domain only for “solely” economic development left a loophole that would have kept the current situation relatively static.

“There are many projects that could qualify as not being for solely economic development,” Holloway said. “But you’d have fewer cases where you’d be able to reach that standard of ‘predominantly’ and would have fewer cases of eminent domain.”

Holloway praised a portion of bill that would recognize “heritage value” of property that’s been owned by a family for generations. “There is a real attachment to land that gives it a value beyond fair market value,” Holloway said. “There should be compensation made on investment over a period of time.”

Although Dale Whitman, a professor at the MU School of Law, said there were some positive changes made to the bill, such as removing provisions that would have exempted churches from being condemned, the Senate version will not hold water.

“I thought the House bill was about right, I thought it was workable,” Whitman said. “I think this standard is really unworkable.”

Whitman said the heritage value language “misses the point and is nonsensical.” He also said placing the “predominant” language into the bill will encourage a great deal of litigation and lead to judicial confusion.

“Obviously blight is different from economic development. Solely is not changing much existing law,” Whitman said. “When you change it to predominantly on the other hand, then a court has to determine what is the predominant purpose of the this project. Every project has a slum clearance or blight aspect and an economic development aspect. I don’t know how a court can figure out how which one of those two purposes is predominant.”

And even though Scott said the bill was “strong,” he doubted whether it would remain that way as the bill goes through the legislative process. “While I am very supportive of tightening up what the House did, that’s a major change in direction,” Scott said. “I don’t know if I have any problem with it, but it’s just something we threw on the table, we didn’t have a lot of discussion, and we’ll discuss it as it goes through the process.”

Holloway said the Farm Bureau pushed for the changes in order to have a stronger overall bill when the House and Senate versions go to conference. The Senate will debate the legislation next week.

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