Thursday, May 03, 2007

Eminent domain bills moving through Texas Legislature

Limits OK'd on eminent domain

Legislature: House backs protections for property owners in older areas

May 3, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Protections for older, run-down or impoverished neighborhoods and stronger leverage for property owners whose land is targeted for development were endorsed by the House on Wednesday, with more restrictions on eminent-domain projects moving through the Legislature.

Legislation by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, bolsters the efforts of some Dallas neighborhoods, most recently around Fair Park, to guard against sweeping plans for redevelopment.

Key to those safeguards are requirements that governments meet stiffer criteria before they can declare a property "blighted," which triggers eminent-domain powers. It also requires that those entities can only declare one property "blighted" at a time, instead of entire areas in which only one property meets the criteria.

"This keeps you from being able to wipe out entire neighborhoods," said Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas. She worked with Mr. Callegari on the bill, which passed the House on a voice vote and faces a final procedural vote today before it heads to the Senate.

The issue of eminent domain – governments' rights to seize land for projects that serve a public purpose – is heated in Texas. In 2005, the Legislature passed a law that banned governments from using the power for commercial development, restricting it to "public use" projects such as museums, libraries and community centers.

The law was inspired by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cities can use eminent domain for private development to generate tax revenue. The ruling prompted a national backlash, as state legislatures moved to protect against land grabs for private, commercial use.

Texas law allows cities to use eminent domain in "blighted areas" for development – but the definition of "blight" left a lot of poor, impoverished and minority communities vulnerable to the whims of cities that want to "clean up" those neighborhoods, critics said.

The legislation approved Wednesday requires that the property be proven to fit at least four of the following criteria before it can be considered blighted: It's uninhabitable, unsafe or abandoned; it has inadequate sanitation; a natural disaster made it unsafe; it's environmentally contaminated; and it is the site of repeated criminal activity.

"Blight means different things to different people," Ms. Davis said. "You can't take it away because of the fact that you don't like the way someone painted their house."

Ms. Davis pushed through sections of the legislation that require entities to pay relocation costs and "replacement costs" of taking the property, not just the value of the property.

The legislation is a strong message to the city of Dallas and the Foundation for Community Development, which a few months ago was considering a push for stronger eminent-domain powers – including declaring entire areas "blighted."

Community leaders met with residents of the Frazier neighborhood in South Dallas, the target of the foundation's renewal project. The area has a long-standing distrust of eminent domain after city leaders used it against hundreds of landowners, most of them black, in 1969 to expand Cotton Bowl parking for the Dallas Cowboys. The team soon left for Irving.

The backlash to the most recent plan was so strong that the city backed down from its plans. Instead, Dallas officials say, the city is simply monitoring efforts to strengthen the 2005 Texas law.

"We saw the writing on the wall," said Larry Casto, the city's chief lobbyist.

Proposed language in some of the other bills, including a massive measure that was delayed late Wednesday with a technical maneuver, could lead to court cases and slow down development if the projects are too expensive, said Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

Dallas officials said Wednesday that the new laws wouldn't affect them much, since current law already restricts their ability to use eminent domain for economic development.

The House also approved the "Landowner's Bill of Rights Act," which would inform property owners of their right to a "good faith effort" by the entity trying to acquire their land to pay a fair price. The landowner would also be entitled to an assessment of damages resulting from having to relocate and a hearing, with a right to appeal any judgment.

The attorney general would be required to draw up the bill of rights by August.

Also winning approval was a constitutional amendment that would let entities sell acquired property back to their original owners if the development plans for the property don't pan out – but at the original price they paid for it, not current market value, which is sometimes lower. That measure now heads to the Senate, and if it's approved there, voters would consider it in November.

Staff writer Scott Goldstein in Dallas contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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