More restrictive eminent domain laws near

ST. PAUL -- Among hundreds of Minnesota citizens worried about their land rights, Roger Dale held a sign demanding that government keep its "hands off our property."...

ST. PAUL -- Among hundreds of Minnesota citizens worried about their land rights, Roger Dale held a sign demanding that government keep its "hands off our property."

The semi-retired farmer from Hanley Falls joined in a recent rally at the State Capitol supporting efforts to limit government's ability to take private property.

"It's unfair," Dale said of government's power under current law. Reform is needed to maintain private property rights, he said.

"It all boils down to common sense."

A large, bipartisan majority of state lawmakers agree and are nearing final approval of legislation that will make it tougher for government to seize private land.


Eminent domain gained nationwide attention last year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision allowing cities to take private property for uses such as a new business if it creates jobs and generates more tax revenue. The Minnesota Legislature and lawmakers in other states have since reacted to tighten eminent domain laws.

"I think that was the catalyst that got everybody's attention," said Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

"We don't want to make it impossible, but we want to make it very difficult," Johnson told the group rallying for eminent domain reform.

Sen. Thomas Bakk, DFL-Cook, who authored the Senate bill, said that governments have abused their right to take property, "and now it's time for the people to rein back the use of eminent domain."

The full Senate is expected to vote on its bill Monday. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said the House proposal will get its last committee hearing Wednesday and could get a floor vote by the first week of April.

There are differences between the two bills, but both:

E Make it nearly impossible for government to take private land strictly for economic development.

E Define conditions that governments must meet when attempting to take land for public use.


E Require that property owners are adequately compensated for their land and attorneys fees if they win a legal challenge.

E Mandate that public hearings be held on proposed land takings.

The legislation has attracted a wide band of supporters, but there are opponents.

Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, said his group is concerned the Legislature will make standards used to determine when land can be taken more restrictive than what is needed to protect private property rights. The League also is concerned that new laws will go into effect too soon and will jeopardize public projects already slated to begin.

Miller said he sees that lawmakers "are feeling more sympathetic and are of a mind to be more restrictive rather than less" when it comes to eminent domain.

"We're just still concerned yet hopeful that the Legislature will do the responsible thing and make sure where eminent domain is absolutely necessary that that tool will still be available," Miller said.

Counties and the state Department of Transportation also use eminent domain, often for road or highway projects.

Margaret Donahoe, legislative director for the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said her organization fears that the measure will make it more costly to acquire land for those public use projects and delay road or highway construction because of more litigation.


Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, an expert among House DFLers on transportation issues, agreed that the proposed changes will end up costing taxpayers more. Lieder said he would like to see parts of the bill reconsidered, including the provision on attorney fees.

"It does add to the cost," added Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, who has introduced proposed changes to the state's eminent domain law in past years.

Not all lawmakers are on board. Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said he can't support the legislation because it's too restrictive.

Lanning, the former Moorhead mayor, said he has maintained throughout the debate that some eminent reform is needed. However, the Johnson bill goes too far in limiting cities' ability to use eminent domain, especially for redevelopment, he said.

Lanning said the bill makes it nearly impossible for a property to meet the definitions of blight or abandonment - two instances where government can take private property.

There will likely be further attempts to change the bills before they get final votes. Sen. Gary Kubly, who is a co-author on the Senate bill, said he believes the proposal strikes a balance between the rights of property owners and the need for government to use eminent domain in some cases.

But Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said he would like to see some protections included in the bill for farmers whose crops are damaged when, for instance, government runs a pipeline across their fields. The bills already include a provision that would require businesses facing eminent domain to be paid for the property and the value of the business.

"Farming is a business, too," Kubly said.

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