Petition filed to reign in state government right to eminent domain

Tuesday, December 20th 2005, 5:32 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Government's use of eminent domain to obtain private property would be more limited in Oklahoma under an initiative petition filed with the Secretary of State's Office Tuesday.

Members of the citizens group Oklahomans in Action delivered nine boxes containing about 170,000 signatures in an attempt to force a statewide vote on the issue. The group needed 117,101 signatures to put the proposed statutory change in state law on the ballot.

The measure would prohibit state and local governments from condemning private property under eminent domain when it intends to transfer the property to a person, business or corporation for economic development.

Government could still use eminent domain to condemn private property for health and safety reasons, to build roads and bridges and other transportation systems and utilities.

Bruce Niemi of Tulsa, spokesman for the group, said the petition was a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that allowed the use of eminent domain 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 Constitution allows governments to condemn private property if its development would benefit an economically distressed city.

James Dunn, an Oklahoma City attorney who has represented private property owners in eminent domain issues, said Oklahoma law is different than Connecticut's but that the practice of eminent domain still is abused in the state.

"There's still not adequate protection for private property owners to not have to give up their land," said Dunn, a candidate for attorney general next year.

"People are very upset about the abuse of eminent domain. We've got to protect private citizens' property rights," Dunn said.

Supporters said they know of no organized opposition, but officials at a statewide business and industry group described the petition as a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Supreme Court's decision.

"We support keeping the current statutes as they are," said Ronn Cupp, vice president of The State Chamber. "People don't need to overreact on something in Oklahoma that's really not that big of a problem."

"We hate to see somebody take a knee-jerk kind of reaction," said Jim Mason, the Chamber's vice president of technology. Mason said the change in state law could impede economic growth.

In Oklahoma, eminent domain has been used for a variety of urban renewal projects where blighted areas were condemned to make way for private commercial or residential development, including the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.

The petition was the second filed by Oklahomans in Action in as many days. The group, which believes in smaller government, submitted the so-called taxpayer bill of rights on Monday to put new limits on state government spending.

The Secretary of State will verify the number of signatures in each petition before forwarding them to the state Supreme Court, which will decide any protests or challenges.