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Pioneer Editorial: Do eminent domain fix with thought

The Minnesota House took an important step in protecting private property rights Thursday night when it passed legislation to restrain local governments' ability to acquire land over the objection of property owners.

While the House bill now moves to conference committee -- the Senate earlier approved its own version -- reform of eminent domain laws is not done. Both bills can be improved, and we hope that the House-Senate conference committee does that.

Based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision affecting the use of eminent domain in Connecticut, states have been rushing to rein in the powers of local government to take property when property owners object, albeit they are compensated for their loss. In the Connecticut case, a city used eminent domain to take homes at a lesser value and turn the property over to a developer who would build retail space at a higher property value, thus giving the city a higher property tax return. The high court said that was within the city's purview under eminent domain.

While Minnesota cities and the organizations that represent them maintain no changes are needed in Minnesota law and that such an extreme case wouldn't be done, state law nonetheless gives cities the flexibility to do just that.

The House bill, which passed 115-17, would bar local governments for taking property for that purpose, but still allows the ability to acquire "blighted property."

The key reason for eminent domain is to acquire land for public purpose, such as roads and schools, and that use should continue without restraint. Also, the eventual law -- while making it easier for property owners to contest and win legal fees in eminent domain cases -- should not add unnecessary burdens to true public purpose cases. In other words, the cost to taxpayers in building roads should not bloom because of increased court cases over acquiring rights of way for needed roads.

In passing the bill Thursday, House members defeated two attempts to amend the bill to exempt two projects involving private property now in the works, with one stalled by a single homeowner while community agreement is high. Perhaps the conference committee should consider provisions to allow a city advisory vote in cases where economic development truly has community support and isn't just a city's push for more property tax dollars.

At any rate, it seems certain that both the Senate and the House will enact eminent domain reform. That said, we still need to make sure that the final product upholds our hard-fought right to own property unimpeded by government whims without making matters worse.