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Supreme Court ruling prompts eminent domain reform push in Minnesota

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The group announced legislation on Thursday in response to last year's U.S. Supreme Court eminent domain ruling that granted those rights to local governments as long as the purpose benefits the public at large. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
State lawmakers, property rights advocates and others are demanding the state limit property seizures by government agencies. The move comes as a result of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain. The court ruled local governments can use eminent domain to take property from one private entity and give it to another private entity if it's in the public interest. The ruling outraged many people. But some officials are urging caution. They worry lawmakers may react too quickly without giving the process enough thought.

St. Paul, Minn. — Jim Meide is the type of guy who sees his home as his castle. He and his wife have lived in their Champlin home for nearly 30 years.

"We worked hard," he told a Capitol news conference on Thursday. "We paid off our mortgage and made improvements to our American dream house. We retired and expected to live out our retirement in our castle on the Mississippi River."

But Meide is hopping mad at the city of Champlin because he says it wants to use eminent domain to take his property. The city supports a marina, condominiums and a restaurant proposal on the site. Champlin officials did not return calls to confirm his account. Nevertheless, Meide says he doesn't want to sell his house and is worried that the city may seize it through eminent domain.

Opponents of eminent domain say that's a violation of personal property rights. Dozens of people attended a news conference urging lawmakers to change the state's eminent domain laws.

Local governments use the process mostly for public uses, like building a road, a park or other public building. But in some instances, they use it for redevelopment and economic development purposes. State lawmakers are worried the practice may increase in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"One of the most fundamental rights of Americans is the right to own your home or your own farm or your own piece of land and in Minnesota it's not that difficult, in fact it's relatively easy to take that home or that farm or that little piece of land and we don't think it should be," says Rep. Jeff Johnson, a candidate for attorney general.

The issue is so hot right now that every legislative leader and Gov. Pawlenty supports some change. The debate is over which properties should be protected. Some lawmakers want to forbid local governments from using eminent domain to seize private property for the use of another private entity. Others want to restrict local governments seizure of a person's home for private use except in cases of extreme blight. The definition of "blight" is also being debated.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, says lawmakers may quibble over the minor details, but hopes they pass some sort of changes during the upcoming session.

If we take away those tools then we have to be careful to understand what those communities might look like in five or 10 years.
- Bruce Messelt

"Our hope is that we can keep this a nonpartisan issue because I would bet you that the person who's home is being taken doesn't care about partisan politics and this issue should rise above that," he said.

Some city officials say they're worried lawmakers may overreach in their attempts to fix a problem that wasn't even a concern a year ago. Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt says cities and towns rarely use eminent domain but says it's a good option to have available. Messelt says a broad overhaul of the law may make things difficult for local government agencies.

"We could see the pendulum swinging to the point where we tie the hands of local governments to such an extreme amount that local governments will not be able to deal with blight, with environmental contamination, with shuttered and closed businesses and property owners who live in Florida and just don't care. If we take away those tools then we have to be careful to understand what those communities might look like in five or 10 years," according to Messelt.

For example, Messelt says Moorhead residents have called on city officials to renovate the downtown for years. He says they worked with landowners to make the changes without using eminent domain. He says other cities may find it necessary.

Tom Grundhoefer, with the League of Minnesota Cities, says he's concerned lawmakers may restrict the flexibility needed to manage land on the local level. He says locally-elected officials have been reluctant to use eminent domain in recent years and may take a more cautious approach as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.

"Given the public reaction, the media reaction and the political reaction, I think our local elected officials are maybe approaching eminent domain with a higher level of sensitivity than they did before," Grundhoefer says.

Grundhoefer says a survey by his organization found that 34 Minnesota cities used eminent domain to seize land for redevelopment or economic development between 1999 and 2005. But critics say the number is too low and doesn't account for the number of property owners who sold as a result of the threat of eminent domain.