Oklahoma Lawmakers Revive Eminent Domain Legislation

Monday, February 12th 2007, 7:34 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Legislation that proposes new guidelines for the use of eminent domain in Oklahoma was approved by a state House subcommittee Monday, reviving debate over the government practice that led to an initiative petition and state Supreme Court ruling last year.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee passed a measure by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, that provides new guidelines for how to establish fair market value when the state expropriates private property without the owner's consent, either for its own use or on behalf of a third party.

A spokesman for a statewide business and industry group said it is opposed to the measure.

``We already have a good system that works well,'' said Mike Seney, senior vice president of operations for The State Chamber. ``We need to leave it alone.''

Eminent domain is most commonly used by government when property is needed for a public project, like a road, and the owner of the required property is unwilling to negotiate a price for its sale.

Wright's measure states that in eminent domain cases, the minimum amount due the owner is determined by the assessed value of the property from the prior year's tax assessment by the county where the property is located.

Opponents of eminent domain cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed its use in Connecticut to take property and give it to a private party for economic development.

The case, entitled Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., said the U.S. Constitution allows governments to condemn private property if its development would benefit an economically distressed city.

Organizations against changes to state eminent domain guidelines, including The State Chamber, said recent court cases indicate the existing rules work.

In May, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said economic development alone cannot be construed as a ``public purpose'' that justifies the seizure of property by public entities.

The Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to acquire private property for right of way easements for water pipelines, two of which would solely service Energetix, a private electric-generating plant proposed for construction and operation in Muskogee County.

A month later, the high court invalidated an initiative petition proposing to restrict government use of eminent domain. Justices said the petition violated the ``single-subject rule'' of the Oklahoma Constitution ``and may not be submitted to a vote of the people.''

Seney said the Muskogee County decision shows changes are not needed.

``Our law is stronger than most any other state in the nation,'' Seney said.

Eminent domain is at issue in an ongoing court case over Oklahoma State University's attempt to purchase property the university needs to build the first phase of a planned $316 million athletic village.

Seney said changes to eminent domain rules might interfere with urban renewal projects where blighted areas were condemned to make way for private commercial or residential development in the state, like the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.

``There are times when eminent domain is needed,'' Seney said. ``You still need it when you're building highways.''

The measure is House Bill 1087.