"Current Texas law allows land grabs. HB 2006 would stop these abuses."
The moat around the castle
By STEVEN ANDERSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Last month, the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2006 -- historic eminent domain reforms that would right the wrong of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London.
Almost two years ago, the court ruled that using eminent domain to take private property for "economic development" was constitutional. Texas was one of the first states to respond to the decision, passing legislation that on its face was a good first step but left considerable room for eminent domain abuse -- the transfer of property from one private individual to another for private profit, not public use.
HB 2006 provides substantive and nearly complete protection for Texas farmers, ranchers, and home and small-business owners. It awaits Gov. Rick Perry's signature.
The legislation focuses on what constitutes "public use" and creates procedures that are fairer to small property owners. This legislation restores the traditional and publicly accepted definition of public use -- the term perverted by the U.S. Supreme Court -- to essentially mean merely a public benefit. Should Perry sign the bill, eminent domain would be restricted to (with limited exceptions) to situations in which property would be acquired for the possession, ownership and occupation of the general public.
This definition is particularly important as it relates to blight. Blight removal has morphed from a justification to acquire properties that pose a true danger to public health and safety -- actual slums -- to an excuse to forcibly take perfectly fine properties for the purpose of increasing tax revenue.
Two notorious situations on opposite sides of the state, El Paso and Freeport, show exactly how blight laws are abused to take well-maintained properties from rightful owners only to hand that land over to better-connected private developers.
In El Paso, the city plans to replace many downtown merchants, including Jerry and Marvin Rosenbaum and Walter Kim, who rely primarily on their proximity to the state's border with Mexico for business, with chain stores and condominiums.
Wright Gore is fighting to keep his family's seafood business along the Brazos River in Freeport. The city hopes to take Western Seafood and replace it with a private yacht marina with residences and retail.
Current Texas law allows such land grabs. HB 2006 would stop these abuses.
Although state and local governments retain the ability to acquire property for genuine public uses, such as roads or courthouses or utilities, the use of eminent domain ultimately would be restricted to situations in which the general public would own and enjoy the property. Coupled with the additional voting, notice and compensation requirements, HB 2006 stands as one of the strongest examples of eminent domain reform in the country.
Of the 41 states that have changed their eminent domain laws since Kelo, Texas can be proud that HB 2006 is among the best. Indeed, the Legislature recognized the weakness that remained from its earlier reform and moved to ensure that all Texans are protected from the abuse of eminent domain.
House Bill 2006
To read the bill for yourself, go to http://tinyurl.com/ypps6t
The last day for Gov. Rick Perry to sign bills into law is Sunday. Bills still can become law without the governor's signature.
If Perry does not veto HB 2006, it would go into effect Sept. 1.
Steven Anderson is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which litigated the Kelo case, and also director of its Castle Coalition. www.ij.org
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