Eminent Domain Ruling Raises New Questions About Initiative Petition
Sunday, May 14th 2006, 3:47 PM CDT
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A state Supreme Court decision involving an eminent domain case in Muskogee County is the best evidence yet that an initiative petition to beef up state eminent domain guidelines is not needed, according to opponents of the plan.
But supporters say they won't give up and will pursue the proposed constitutional amendment until voters have a chance to decide the issue at the ballot box.
``I think it's still needed,'' said Rick Carpenter of Tulsa, spokesman for the citizens group Oklahomans in Action, which spearheaded the initiative petition drive. ``Interpretations of the law can change. Codifying the law is a good idea.''
The initiative petition was delivered to the state's highest court in January after the Secretary of State's Office verified that 163,375 signatures had been collected. The group needed 117,101 signatures to get the issue on a statewide ballot.
But the measure, State Question 729, remains in the Supreme Court, where a coalition of business groups led by The State Chamber has challenged it.
``Our eminent domain law is working,'' said Ronn Cupp, vice president of The State Chamber. ``Our position is we don't need it.'' Other organizations involved in the legal challenge are the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the Oklahoma Professional Economic Development Council.
Opponents are concerned that changing eminent domain guidelines might interfere with urban renewal projects where blighted areas were condemned to make way for private commercial or residential development in the state, like University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
Supporters hope to resolve the challenge in time for the November general election.
Eminent domain is a legal term that refers to the lawful power of the state to expropriate private property without the owner's consent, either for its own use or on behalf of a third party.
It 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.
Opponents of eminent domain were energized last year after the U.S. Supreme Court 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 U.S. Constitution allows governments to condemn private property if its development would benefit an economically distressed city.
``I think there's been a great deal of concern over the Kelo case,'' said Bruce Niemi of Tulsa, head of Protect Our Homes. ``Blight has always been kind of a term of urban planners to just go in wholesale and destroy neighborhoods. But one person's blight might be somebody else's long-term home.''
The initiative petition 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 purposes of public use and to clean blighted areas.
New questions were raised about the initiative petition last week when the Oklahoma Supreme Court handed down a 22-page decision in which justices 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.
``The court was pretty strong,'' said Cupp of The State Chamber. ``It basically said, Muskogee County, you can't do this for economic development. That was really a reaffirmation of what we said since Kelo came out. We're not like Connecticut.''
Supporters of the initiative petition agreed that the high court's decision was a victory for citizens who want to rein in government's eminent domain powers.
``It certainly supports the goals of the eminent domain petition,'' Niemi said. The decision indicates that eminent domain guidelines in the Oklahoma Constitution are tougher than the U.S. Constitution's 5th and 14th amendments' prohibition against the taking of private property for public use without due process and just compensation.
But Niemi said a court's interpretation of the law can change over time as priorities and members of the court change. He also said the decision did not address issues where government acts as a middle man and acquires property that is then turned over to private developers, as in the Kelo case.
``We do feel that there is still a need,'' said Pat Highland of Tulsa, a member of Oklahomans in Action. ``Anytime you're dealing with landowners, you have all kinds of issues. We need solid laws on the books.''
The eminent domain petition is one of two that Oklahomans in Action have pending before the Supreme Court. The other is the so-called taxpayers bill of rights in which state government spending is limited to increases in population and inflation.
Like eminent domain, the TABOR petition is being challenged. In both cases, opponents allege the initiative petition drives were funded primarily by out-of-state anti-tax organizations in violation of state law.
The state Constitution requires anyone who circulates an initiative petition to be a qualified elector of the state, meaning at least 18 years old and a resident. Signatures taken by an unqualified circulator can be thrown out.