Protecting property owners from eminent domain

Since our founding, owning property has been a big part of the American Dream. In fact, our Founding Fathers understood that owning property gave an individual a stake in their community and made them better citizens.

This is a notion we’ve embraced here in Minnesota. Over the years we’ve worked hard to encourage and help families own their homes. As a result, we currently rank second in the nation when it comes to a percentage of our population that owns a home.

The value we place on home ownership, however, is one of the reasons that why the issue of eminent domain has become a hot button one at the State Capitol this year.

The other reason is the recent Supreme Court decision of Kelo vs. New London, which ruled that local governments can use eminent domain for economic development. Specifically, it reaffirmed that local governments had the right to take property from a landowner and give it to a developer or other private entity on the promise that the property would be improved and the value increased — at least in states and localities where such actions were not prohibited by statute.

That last qualification is an important one because this is an area where the rights of individuals need to be balanced with the greater good. There are times when cities, counties or states need to use eminent domain for public uses, such as roads and government buildings. However, over the past decade, there’s been an increasing use of eminent domain for by cities for economic development. Cities will condemn land, then hand it over to a developer or other entity to create more jobs or collect more taxes on the land.

The Minnesota House of Representative’s Civil Law Committee recently heard testimony on this issue at the Blaine City Hall. We heard an hour of testimony from proponents of changing the law and an hour from those opposed to it.

Personally, I can see both sides of the issue. Three angry property owners told us how they did not want to move, yet were still being forced off their property. My heart went out to all three. On the other side, city and county officials shared with us how this is a tool for economic development and eventually does serve the greater good.

Finding a balance between these two opposite viewpoints will be the challenge. I am currently working on legislation that I believe will help protect Minnesotans from the unfair seizure of property, while also provide cities and local governments with the tools they need to accomplish projects for the public good.

The bill provides a strong and clear definition of what constitutes “public use” and specifically prohibits local governments from using eminent domain to transfer private residential property to other private entities. It also makes sure the process is transparent and that challenges are affordable.

Most important, however, it reaffirms the value of home ownership and the important role it plays in our communities.

I am interested in hearing what you think about this and other issues. I can be reached at the Capitol at (651) 296-7807, by e-mail at rep.nora. slawik@house.mn and by mail at 357 State Office Building, 100 MLK Boulevard, St. Paul MN 55155.

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