The jury is still out on eminent domain abuse in Texas
Legislature: Senate action bolsters efforts to protect neighborhoods
May 24, 2007
By TERRENCE STUTZ
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Impoverished inner-city neighborhoods would receive new protections when they are targeted for redevelopment under legislation adopted Wednesday by the Senate that imposes new requirements on eminent-domain projects.
The measure, already approved by the House, would require local governments to meet stiffer criteria before they can declare a property "blighted," a designation that triggers eminent-domain powers by local governmental entities.
Sponsored by Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, the legislation bolsters the efforts of some older Dallas neighborhoods – some around Fair Park – to guard against sweeping plans for redevelopment.
Among its provisions is a restriction that allows local government agencies to declare only individual properties "blighted" rather than designating an entire area as blighted because of one property in the area that meets the criteria.
"If you're going to condemn property, you can only condemn the property on which you can make a case for blight," Mr. Janek said. "The legislation sets more specific criteria to meet the definition of blight."
The issue of eminent domain – the government's right to seize land for projects that serve a public purpose – has caused heated debate 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.
That law was triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cities can use eminent domain for private projects to generate tax revenue. The ruling caused a national backlash and prompted state legislatures to enact safeguards against land seizures for commercial use.
Texas laws still allows cities to use eminent domain in blighted areas for development, but critics said the loose definition of blight has made many impoverished communities vulnerable to the actions of cities that want to clean those areas up.
The bill passed Wednesday requires that the property be proved to fit at least four criteria before it can be classified as blighted, including that the structure is uninhabitable, unsafe or abandoned and that it is the site of repeated criminal activity.
The measure is being watched closely by the city of Dallas and the Foundation for Community Development, which a few months ago considered a push for stronger eminent-domain powers in some areas, including the Frazier neighborhood in South Dallas.
Reaction to the proposal was so hostile that the city backed down from its plans. Instead, Dallas officials say they are simply monitoring efforts to strengthen the 2005 Texas law.
Senators also approved a "Landowner's Bill of Rights Act," which would inform property owners of their rights in a good faith effort by a government entity trying to acquire their land – including the right to a fair price. The landowner would be entitled to an assessment of damages resulting from having to relocate and a hearing with the right to appeal any judgment.
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