Eminent Domain restrictions pass House – may be tied to transportation authorization

Posted on March 1, 2012 by Dene Westbrook

Eminent domain…the words illicit strong opinions from all sides.  Michigan officials will recall the ballot proposal adopted several years ago amending our state’s constitution to severly restrict those instances in which eminant domain can be used.  Now the Congress appears to be moving ahead with its own version.

The House recently passed H.R. 1433, the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2011.  It would prohibit federal, state and local governments that receive federal economic development funds from using eminent domain acquire land for economic development purposes.  The bill defines “economic development” ias private, for-profit projects, or projects designed to increase tax revenue, the tax base, or employment.  The bill would create safe harbor for specific “public purpose” activities that necessitate eminent domain, such as the construction of roads, hospital facilities, airports or military bases.  Such authority would also be permitted in cases of developing public transportation systems or infrastructure, such as the proposed Keystone pipeline, or to remove threats to public health and safety.

During the debate, Michigan Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, was the sole speaker in opposition.  Although Conyers called protections against eminent domain abuse a laudable goal, he referred to the bill as a “one-size-fits-all, Washington-knows-best solution”, and said that, “Congress should not now come charging in after 7 years of work and presume to sit as a national zoning board, arrogating to our national government the right to decide which States have gotten the balance right and deciding which projects are or are not appropriate”. 

Under the normal process, the House-passed eminient domain bill would be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over the issue, and which is unlikely to consider eminent domain this year.  However, in the effort to advance the Transportation Reauthorization bill, Senate leaders have decided to permit a number of non-germane amendments on the transportation bill.  One of these is a possible amendment submitted by Senator John Boozman (R-AR) that closely mirrors the Eminent Domain legislation passed by the House.  If Senate leadership allows consideration of the Boozman amendment and it passes, the new eminent domain legislation could ride the higher-stakes Transportation Reauthorization bill to the President’s desk and enactment.

The League is working with the National League of Cities to oppose Senate consideration of the Boozman amendment. Please urge your member of Congress and Senators Levin and Stabenow to oppose any non-germane amendments such as this and to oppose any legislation that would further erode local control and eminent domain authority.

Arnold Weinfeld is Director of Strategic Initiatives and Federal Affairs for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at 517-908-0304 or by e-mail.

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